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Why George just can’t get the staff these days

Amid a labour shortage, the government puts ideology before the economy.

October 03 2023, 11.42am

“It’s been non-stop,” says George Berisha, 44, who owns George’s Car Wash in Haydock, St Helens. Berisha opened the car wash 12 years ago and has built up a strong and loyal customer base. But since the pandemic, Berisha has found himself unable to recruit the people who make the car wash what it is. 

“We’ve lost staff and we can’t find [more] staff,” he says. “We usually have 12 people working here, now it's just seven.” As in much of the industry, the majority of employees at George’s Car Wash are foreign nationals, meaning he often loses people who choose to return to their home countries. 

Berisha tells The Lead that while it used to be easy to find people to work for him, these days he has to pick up the slack himself. “I have to do so much more of the work, I even had to get my friends to help me out recently,” he says. “Nobody wants to do it, and it's not because we don’t pay well. We pay good wages.”

“They could help us and we’d love to have them, but we’re not allowed to take them.”

As Berisha points out, he isn’t struggling to find people because of his business practices  – some of his team have been with him for the whole 12 years – but because there’s simply a shortage of people in the area willing to do the job. What makes things even more frustrating is the fact that George’s Car Wash is a stone’s throw away from the Styles Haydock, a local hotel being used as temporary accommodation for asylum seekers. 

“The only people who want work are those coming from the hotel, but we’re not allowed to employ them,” says Berisha. “They could help us and we’d love to have them, but we’re not allowed to take them.”

The UK has some of the strongest restrictions in the world on asylum seekers’ employment rights, with those waiting on the outcome of their asylum applications only allowed to work after 12 months. This is, on average, six months later than the rest of Europe, with countries including Germany, Sweden, Italy and Portugal allowing asylum seekers the right to work before the six month mark. 

Recent figures from the National Audit Office found that the Home Office spent approximately £3.6 billion on asylum support costs in 2022-23, nearly double the amount in 2021-22. This is money that could be saved if asylum seekers were able to work and to pay taxes, putting money back into the government coffers instead of being compelled to take it out. 

But it’s not just the public finances that take the hit when asylum seekers aren’t allowed to work. Many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) like George’s Car Wash are struggling to both recruit and retain employees due to labour shortages. A poll by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) this year found that 70% of UK business ‘decision makers’ believe the period asylum seekers must wait before working should be halved to six months.

“The government seems to think there are huge numbers of indigenous British people lining up for these unskilled jobs – and particularly skilled  jobs – but these places are not being filled,” says Martyn Davis, vice chair of SME4Labour, a Labour Party group that campaigns for the interests of small business owners. “It’s nonsense.”

As Davis explains, the industries that most typically employ recent refugees and asylum seekers who have passed the one-year threshold, such as farming, hospitality, construction and manual labour, have been “severely hit” by labour shortages due to increased economic inactivity post-pandemic and a lack of EU workers after Brexit.

SMEs, which account for three-fifths of employment and around half of all turnover in the UK’s private sector, have been particularly badly hit. The Open University’s annual Business Barometer report found that 68% of SMEs are currently facing skills shortages, with 47% struggling to implement plans to address the skills shortage, unlike 52% of larger companies, who are able to increase investment in staff training. 

Such issues are having a knock-on effect on business operations, with three-quarters of businesses finding that shortages were causing an increased workload on other staff. Some 78% reported that it was causing either a reduction in activity, service delivery, profitability, or long-term growth plans.

Shahid Nadeem, an immigration lawyer and Labour councillor for Prittlewell, says that the ban on work for asylum-seekers in the UK can’t be separated from the issues caused by labour shortages. “It limits the available labour pool in the local area, making it difficult for SMEs not only to find skilled workers but to retain them,” he says. 

“Asylum seekers who are eager to contribute to society and support themselves would bring additional skills and talent to the workforce.”

Under the current rules, even the few asylum-seekers given permission to work are liable to have it taken away again if their asylum claims are refused – making employers wary of committing to hiring people. The uncertainty, says Nadeem, “can have significant consequences on [employers’] operations and overall viability.” 

Unable to hire the only local people who are both skilled and willing enough to work with him, Berisha has just two options: increasing wages or closing on certain days, neither of which he believes are financially viable. 

“Work-based businesses will have to pay more to get the work done, if they can get people to do it at all,” says Davis. “This cost will be passed on to the consumer, causing inflation to rise.” With customers’ spending power reduced too, this becomes a vicious cycle. If businesses are forced to raise prices during a cost of living crisis, says Davis, eventually, “the customers just won’t be there”. 

With the latest figures showing there are more than 175,000 asylum seekers either waiting on an initial decision or for the outcome of an appeal, Nadeem makes the point that allowing asylum seekers to work as soon as they arrive in the UK – or at least after a much shorter period than 12 months – would not only address these issues, but provide a net gain for SMEs all over the country. 

“Asylum seekers who are eager to contribute to society and support themselves would bring additional skills and talent to the workforce,” he says. 

Nadeem notes that smaller, local businesses often face competition from larger companies. “These types of restrictions [on the employment of asylum seekers] may further disadvantage SMEs when compared to larger or more well-resourced competitors,” he says. “But small businesses always play a vital role in local communities and contribute to job creation,” he says. 

“Not only would employing asylum seekers help small businesses thrive, but it would also mean more money being spent in the local economy. This would have a ripple effect, which could stimulate economic growth and benefit both the small businesses and the broader community.”

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