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.
Expecting a crackdown on immigration, the capital’s Chamber of Commerce says the city still needs foreign workers.
Could London build its own work visa system? A plan proposed Thursday by British business leaders suggests that London could benefit from having different migration rules than the rest of the country, for reasons which may well sound familiar to American readers. Following the electorate’s narrow vote for Brexit in June, the British government is likely to orchestrate a crackdown on immigration, at the very least introducing some controls on migration from other E.U. states.
This may go down well in some quarters, even if the reasons behind the pro-Leave vote were far wider and more complex than a simple yearning for less population movement. Restricting migration nonetheless promises trouble for the economy of overwhelmingly pro-Remain London, whose (ill-distributed) wealth relies on the free movement of workers for jobs and trade at all levels of society. Sean McKee, policy director of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the body that created the proposal, bluntly outlined the London businesses’ current angst in the British media:
“Our city would collapse without migrants. We need an immigration policy that is slightly different for London. The biggest issue by far [for businesses] is skills and staff. It is vital to London’s future that a degree of flexibility is applied if the government amends the U.K. immigration system.”
After this week’s U.S. elections, London’s quandary has a magnified international significance. By exposing growing tensions between a largely pro-migration city and a largely anti-migration national government, The Chamber’s London visa idea might well be a harbinger of numerous similar proposals in America. The proposal, it should be noted, is currently more a case of business leaders thinking aloud rather than something liable to hit the law books soon, even though London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan recently declared himself open to something similar. It’s still a fascinating sense of what could be many related debates to come.
The proposal would work like this. Companies would be allowed to sponsor skilled international workers to come to London for a job, without their being subject to national government quotas. They would need, however, to show that the job in question required skills of which there was a shortage among the domestic workforce. Successful visa applicants would then be given a National Insurance number (the loose equivalent of a U.S. Social Security Number) that entitles them only to work within London. They would not necessarily be obliged to live in London, however, provided they could commute to work. It’s just that the applicant’s residency would depend on holding a London job, and could not be replaced by a job elsewhere in the U.K. If they lost their job, they would have 60 days to find another one in the city, or face deportation.
With just these barebones to go by, the idea still raises as many issues as it provides solutions. Allowing continued migration might well be accepted by Londoners, whose vote to remain in the E.U. implies an acceptance of the principle of some freedom of movement for workers. By creating a two-tier system, the scheme could nonetheless drive even greater wedges between London and other regions, atomizing the divides that the Brexit referendum laid bare. It could, for example, give London such a competitive advantage that companies flocked there from elsewhere in the country, sapping other regions of jobs and exacerbating London’s already chronic housing shortages. For a country that already feels it’s playing second fiddle to London, and a city full of people struggling to manage high living costs, this could be a challenge.
There’s also the question of how such a proposal would affect applicants. Being allowed to apply for jobs only within certain boundaries, with only 60 days’ grace between jobs, could be a recipe for exploitation. Sponsor employers could demand more and offer less because they know that their employees are essentially stuck with them. Moreover, many “London” businesses are not actually located within the city limits, which contain around 8.5 million of the London metropolitan region’s 14 million total population. It’s thus possible that visa applicants could still be barred from accepting many jobs in areas with with skill shortages, even though their headquarters fall within the London metro area.
Still, if the process of making the idea work seems complex, it does have some precedents that are already functioning. Numerous Australian federal states and territories offer state-only visas. While these areas are sometimes huge, their populations are all lower and their job opportunities usually fewer than London’s. The plan might also help Britain’s Conservative government get out of a tight spot, both with the electorate and its own power base. Like the U.S. Republicans, Britain’s Conservative party contains both anti-immigration nativists and pro-business liberals — two markedly different positions housed under one political roof. The London visa rules could actually serve to satisfy both camps by creating separate spheres in which they can function.
That doesn’t answer the question of what broader effect special city-only migration laws could have, beyond filling a few skills gaps. Would they lead towards the further fragmentation of national identities, exacerbating class, metropolitan and regional divides? Or would they provide a working framework to manage these divides with less friction? One thing still seems clear. If we’re going to bridge the gulfs exposed by Britain’s Brexit vote — and the election of Donald Trump — we’re going to need to look around for some new tools.