Why we’re talking about . . .

Where have all the foreign workers gone?

Employers say staff from EU are not returning to former roles as UK eases Covid restrictions

Businesses across the UK are struggling to fill staff roles amid shortages of overseas workers triggered by the Covid-19 crisis and Brexit, industry experts are warning.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and recruitment firm Adecco say that employers are planning to hire at the fastest rate in eight years in anticipation of a post-pandemic boom. But while customers are keen to make up for lost time following the reopening of the hospitality and retail sectors in England and Wales,  a “sharp decline” in the number of EU workers is “fuelling the risk of labour shortages”, The Guardian reports.

Up to 1.3 million are estimated to have quit the UK since late 2019, “as many returned to their country of birth to see through the pandemic at home”, the newspaper continues. Industry experts are warning that the staffing problems have also hit the social care, construction and manufacturing sectors - and risk putting a “handbrake on the recovery”. 

Hit to hospitality  

The scale of the problem is underlined by newly released figures from jobs website Adzuna, “which is tracked by government officials for early warning signs from the labour market”, says The Guardian.

The number of jobs listed by the search engine has risen by 18% over the past six weeks to almost one million vacancies, as the events and leisure sectors begin hiring again. But the number of job searches from Europe and North America has halved - a decline of about 250,000 - since February 2020, when the coronavirus began spreading to countries worldwide.

Bosses at bars and restaurants across the UK say they may be forced to limit their opening hours as a result of staffing problems, despite the anticipated “huge demand” from customers, the BBC reports.

The cities worst hit by the staffing shortages include Manchester, Cambridge and Oxford, according to Adzuna. Site co-founder Andrew Hunter says the shortages have been exacerbated by an exodus of homegrown staff who have quit the hospitality and retail industries “to look for more secure work after the ups and downs of the last year”.

And “UK employers can no longer rely on overseas workers to plug employment gaps,” he added.  

Jeremy King, co-founder of restaurant group Corbin & King, told the i news site that “nobody quite realised how many people we had from Europe”. 

“They were marooned here in the pandemic and were treated quite badly,” King said. “We have a home secretary who shows no respect for the sector, our third-largest employer. They headed home and some don’t want to come back, and who can blame them? Others who do can’t get back.”

Figures released last month by hospitality industry software provider Fourth show that in the first quarter of 2021, 34.9% of new starters in the sector were from the EU, compared with 48.6% in Q1 2019, as trade publication CLH News reported at the time.

Low pay, high pressure 

Industry experts say extra pressures facing hospitality staff have also made the work less attractive, with many of those who are returning forced to cover several roles owing to staff shortages and cuts. 

Another “common fear” for returning staff is of “antagonising guests by insisting they comply with the Covid regulations, such as checking in with the test-and-trace app and wearing a mask”, reports the Financial Times

Recruitment agencies are urging companies to rethink how much they pay staff, in order to attract more candidates. Chris Slay of recruiter Skills Provision told The Telegraph that “businesses are not living in the real world, they’re living in a world that is gone”.

 “In 2021, you can’t get away with paying people minimum wage, you just won’t get anybody,” he added. 

That message has been echoed by Gerwyn Davies, a senior labour market adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the professional body for HR professionals. Employers must improve employment conditions and increase training opportunities to tempt workers back, he told The Guardian.

“By offering better-quality jobs, employers will be in a better position to attract and retain the staff they need, particularly in sectors that have traditionally relied on EU workers, the supply of which has fallen sharply,” Davies said.

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