Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The rule, coming this spring, will ban non-E.U. arrivals earning less than £35,000 from claiming residency in Britain.
U.S. citizens who work in the United Kingdom for an annual income of less than $50,000 may soon find themselves buying a ticket home.
If so, they’ll be doing so thanks to a new law coming this April, one that will see any non-European Union citizens in the U.K. earning less than £35,000 ($49,960) a year deported after five years in the country. The law comes as part of a new package intended to slash migration levels in the U.K., and will also see the country become a lot harder to get into professionally in the first place. After April, U.K. companies won’t be able to bring anyone in unless they pay them more than £30,000 ($42,800) per year and pay a levy of £1,000 a year ($1,427) for every new non-E.U. hire.
For the U.K., the law is a departure from past practice. The country has long tried to control the flow of migrants into lower-paid jobs. By raising the visa threshold to a level considerably above Britain’s current median wage of £27,531 ($39,300), however, the government is now also targeting the relatively well off.
The law comes in reaction to record migration levels. In 2014, 336,000 new migrants entered Britain, a rise of 82,000 on the preceding year. Facing electoral pressure from its right from the U.K. Independence Party—an anti-immigrant, anti-E.U. group that shares similarities with America’s Tea Party—Britain’s conservative government has promised to slash that number by over a third to just 100,000 new arrivals annually.
That’s not going to be easy. Currently, the salary threshold for filling jobs with non-E.U. employees sits at £20,800 ($29,700). Pushing the threshold up to £30,000 (and £35,000 after five years) could reduce annual migration by 20,000—a number that will nibble away at currently high figures rather than bite off a chunk.
In doing so, it could also create a major headache for many essential U.K. services that rely on employing migrants. Nurses, for example, start at salaries of just £21,692, while a teacher starts at £22,023. Jobs in IT, telecoms, and web design could also be at stake, potentially increasing opportunities for E.U. citizens but also wreaking havoc with many company payrolls. It may also mean many migrants, North Americans included, have to start packing their bags.
One of these people is Amanda Dorter, a Canadian national working in the U.K. as a conductive educator for children with motor disabilities. At £25,000 a year, her salary is far below the new threshold and she will now have to put future plans on hold. “I'm devastated” she tells CityLab:
“I already feel that this is home, and as a worker here I want to develop a sense of attachment and belonging to my community, which is hard to do if I know I'll be deported in five years time, when my visa expires. I have the sort of job where I want to develop links with the families and communities that I work with and also feel free to help build the service over time. That requires a long-term commitment, with the ability to plan over several years. That won’t be possible under such precarious conditions, and it makes me question if I should stay, or if I should leave now.”
As Dorter notes, the migrant jobs under threat are not typically ones for which there is a huge pool of applicants, either from the E.U. or elsewhere:
“I think these laws are being brought in to placate people’s anger about a lack of jobs and services by blaming migrants [rather than austerity cuts] … but they don’t make sense. The areas it will impact, like education and health care, are already struggling to find people for posts even now, when they’re still letting migrants in. These jobs are so stressful and underfunded that already you don’t exactly have qualified candidates lining up. That situation can only get worse with the new threshold.”
Business leaders have also weighed in on the disruption the new laws could cause. Director General of Britain’s Institute of Director’s said yesterday that:
"These plans would only make a 'modest' contribution to cutting overall net migration. This will send a message around the world that the U.K. is no longer open to international talent."
As the planned law gets closer to being introduced, public resistance is growing. This petition against the law had 72,000 signatures at time of this writing, approaching the 100,000 mark necessary to bring the subject up for debate in the U.K. Parliament.
But even that may not yet be enough to overturn the law that reflects a wider sea change in Britain. This year Britain will vote in a referendum on whether to remain in the E.U., a vote for which some polls show majorities in favor of exit. After years of skeptically pursuing international integration followed by long recession, many Britons are weary and fearful and draw a link between the two processes. This new, unwieldy law is arguably a response to that—the sound of Britain closing the door.