There are many ways for talented individuals to work in the UK. By a country mile, the most frequently used route is the Skilled Worker visa. In 2022, there were 267,670 successful work visa applications, with grants for ‘Skilled Worker’ and ‘Skilled Worker – Health and Care’ visas representing around 54% of the total amount, which is almost twice as many as the total number granted in 2019.
An immediately obvious reason for this exponential increase is the one word we all hate to hear – on par with the term used when referring to a certain global pandemic – Brexit. Although undeniably the “B” word, which brought an end to the freedom of movement of EEA citizens, was a huge factor contributing to the increase in work visas, another was the overhaul of the Skilled Worker visa’s predecessor – Tier 2 General – with a lower salary, skill level and no requirement to advertise, this was a celebrated paradigm shift to a simpler and more flexible process.
However, and despite the promising statistics for UK work route visas, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), an independent and non-governmental body, found that there continues to be a reluctance amongst certain businesses to sponsor international talent, particularly SMEs and start-ups. The feedback received suggests that this is partly due to the overall cost of sponsorship, but also concerns around the complexity of the visa process and the subsequent duties required by UK sponsor companies.
It is an unfortunate truth that the Immigration Rules can be somewhat convoluted; however, this should not deter prospective UK sponsors recruiting from the pool of international talent, as they will be missing out on a valuable and profitable resource.
This article aims to dispel some of the myths and provide a helpful summary of the key aspects of sponsoring an overseas national under the Skilled Worker route.
The first step in the sponsorship process is to apply for a UK sponsor licence, depending on the specific visa route(s) the company intends to sponsor. The application form is completed online, in which the company is required to answer various questions about their organisation(s) and submit evidence to the Home Office to demonstrate that the business is a genuine trading entity, with robust and effective systems in place to facilitate the sponsorship of an overseas worker.
Yes, the application process is complex, and it is advisable that immigration advice is sought to ensure it is done right. Further, it may be more difficult (although by no means impossible) for SMEs and startups to demonstrate that they have the correct systems in place, such as an effective HR department.
The cost will depend on the size of the company. Medium and larger businesses will be required to pay the higher fee; however, there is a discounted rate for small companies and registered charities, which is currently £536.
Once the application is approved, the sponsor licence will be active for four years, at which point an application for renewal will be required, a much simpler process compared with the initial application.
Unlike its predecessor, the Skilled Worker visa route carries a relatively low salary level. The current salary requirement under the Skilled Worker visa is £26,200 or the ‘going rate for the role’, whichever is higher.
The reason why there is an added caveat of the ‘going rate’ is to ensure that an overseas worker’s salary does not undercut the UK market or displace nationals, a fundamental principle of UK immigration.
There are additional concessions available to further reduce the salary requirement where, for example, the prospective hire has a PhD or is a ‘new entrant’ in the job market.
As above, the reformed visa route has seen a significant drop in the required skill level. Under the Tier 2 General route, the minimum skill level required was Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) level 6, which is equivalent to degree level. Under the Skilled Worker visa, the minimum skill level requirement is RQF level 3 – equivalent to A-level.
Whilst the reforms introduced a significant drop in skill level, opening the route to a much wider cohort of prospective applicants, the UK is continuing to feel the squeeze in certain sectors, following Brexit. Most notably, the labour shortage has impacted on the construction and hospitality sectors, where recruitment levels have plummeted in the last few years.
As part of MAC’s most recent review, they recommended that five new roles (all RQF 3 or above) be moved to the shortage occupation list (a list of specific job roles which UK businesses struggle to recruit into, which benefit from lower salary and visa fees) to ease the pressure on construction firms, which was implemented by the government as part of the Spring budget reforms.
However, this was only an interim review and MAC is currently in the process of compiling its findings for the final report and many hope that they recommend further construction and hospitality roles be added, potentially at the lower RQF 2 level, should it be found that there is a struggle to recruit into these roles, and that, in the circumstances, migration is a sensible and proportionate response.
Watch this space.
Yes, sponsorship is initially expensive. A company is required to fork out for their sponsor licence and, ordinarily, will fund the visa process for the prospective overseas hire, including the visa fee, Immigration Skills Charge (ISC), Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS), plus additional fees where the individual comes to the UK with their family.
Whilst the initial outlay is costly, there is the potential to include clawback provisions in the employee’s contract, to recoup some of the cost (save for ISC) should their employment terminate within a specified period. However, a word of warning, there has been an increase in vulnerable individuals being trapped in bonded labour by employers, therefore legal advice should always be sought to ensure the clause is drafted correctly so that it is proportionate and enforceable.
Sponsor licence approved, Skilled Worker application successful, the overseas hire is in the UK and doing great – job done, right?
Yes and no. The leg work in terms of the application processes is finalised; however, it is very important for UK sponsors to be mindful of the duties and compliance responsibilities incumbent on them for the lifespan of their licence. They must ensure to keep the Home Office up to date on any changes to their employee’s work and personal circumstances, and also any corporate changes, such as mergers, demergers, share sales, corporate restructuring and so on.
The takeaway here is that UK sponsorship is a learning curve. But, once mastered, it has the potential to unlock an untapped pool of skilled, innovative and diverse individuals to ensure the UK continues to grow a world-renowned labour market.
This article is for general information only and does not, and is not intended, to amount to legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. If you have any questions relating to your particular circumstances, you should seek independent legal advice.