UK's 'brightest and best' migrants take unskilled jobs

By Adrian Goldberg
Presenter, 5 live Investigates

Image caption, The UK Border Agency says a third of skilled migrants in the UK are working in unskilled jobs

"Unfortunately, I'm not getting the chance which I was expecting, that's why I'm here in a fast food restaurant.

"I want a desk job but unfortunately it's highly impossible for me.

"Most of my friends work in fast food restaurants because they are not getting [a job] they deserve from what they studied.

"That's why they are working as night-time security and sometimes they are working in food restaurants."

In between serving customers at a busy sandwich shop in London's West End, Sultana explains why she and her friends who came to Britain seeking to build a professional career have ended up with low-skilled work.

Sultana, from Hyderabad in India, is an intelligent woman, with a Masters degree in business administration from a UK university, but in the current economic climate has found more lucrative avenues of employment closed to her.

She is also an unwitting player in a political row about the number of overseas workers taking unskilled jobs from their British counterparts at a time when unemployment is nudging 2.5 million.

Tier system

The issue came into sharp focus this week when a report published by the UK Border Agency identified that almost a third of migrants, given priority admission because they are highly skilled, have ended up working in unskilled occupations.

These workers are classified as Tier 1 under Britain's points-based immigration system introduced in 2008. This was designed to attract investors, entrepreneurs and well-qualified applicants such as surgeons or engineers - described by the then Labour government as "the brightest and best".

Overseas graduates from British universities are also classified as Tier 1, and can apply for a Post Study Work visa allowing them to remain in the country for up to two years after their course has finished.

Just under 19,000 Tier 1 visas were issued last year, of which more than half were issued to migrants from just three countries: India, Pakistan and Nigeria.

The UK Border Agency's study, based on a sample of more than 1,000 Tier 1 visa holders, revealed that 29% giving details of their employment are doing unskilled jobs.

The employment status of nearly half the study sample was unclear - they failed to declare the specifics of their job, or whether they were actually employed at all - leaving just a quarter known to be working in highly-skilled occupations.

Immigration Minister Damian Green has also joined the fray, and in reaction to the UK Border Agency report he said: "While it is important that low-skilled jobs are filled, there are hundreds of thousands of British people who could be doing them instead of a migrant.

"Those coming into the UK under the highly-skilled migrant route should only be able to do highly-skilled jobs - it should not be used as a means to enter the low-skilled jobs market.

"Investors and entrepreneurs aside, this report questions the value of this route into the UK, and the findings will play a key part in discussions on how the annual limit will be shaped."

'Shaky ground'

The left-leaning think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), claims the data the Border Agency's study was based on is "weak" and questioned how representative it was because only those Tier 1 migrants also applying to bring in relatives to the UK were part of the sample.

Tim Finch, the IPPR's head of migration, said: "Damian Green is on shaky ground in implying that highly-skilled migrants coming to the UK under Tier 1 are entering the low-skilled job market in significant numbers over a sustained time period.

"This looks very much like an attempt to justify a drastic reduction in Tier 1 visa numbers under the proposed cap. But excluding the 'brightest and the best' from the UK will not help the unemployed, and it could undermine the economic recovery."

The IPPR highlights the findings of the Migration Advisory Committee from December 2009 which found 70% of Tier 1 migrants were in skilled work, while only 20% were in unskilled work.

However, the 5 live Investigates programme spoke to a frontline immigration officer, based at Heathrow airport, who has long had suspicions about exploitation of the Tier 1 Visa system.

Speaking anonymously, he told the BBC: "The majority of Tier 1 migrants I see coming through fill out landing cards that say 'occupation: supermarket or security' - to me that is not a highly-skilled job. It is a major abuse of the system as far as I'm concerned.

"Most of the genuinely skilled migrants come in via the Tier 2 points system, such as people in finance who have a sponsored job fixed before they arrive in the UK. These are people with skills that we need.

"We have two sections to the Tier 1 - the highly skilled side and the post study side, who have supposedly studied in the UK, for probably around 6 years.

"You ask [Tier 1 migrants] questions they're not able to answer and they are evasive. Their English is often not good, which is not a good sign if they've supposedly been in the UK for some years already.

"We break it down from that, go forward on the education side, as we can only really touch that and try to prove that fraudulently obtained certificates were given to the Home Office to get the Tier 1 status."

Fraudulent entry

There are wider concerns that the Tier 1 Post Study Work route is being exploited by some migrants using bogus qualifications to obtain visas.

One high-profile case concerned Tariq ur-Rehman, who obtained his visa using a fake post-graduate diploma he had bought from a London-based college.

Earlier this year, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission ruled that he posed a "serious and immediate threat to national security".

Rehman denies being an Islamic extremist but did admit in evidence that he did not study for his diploma in business management.

Now political pressure is growing for more restrictions in this area. The Migration Advisory Committee has described the UK's Tier 1 Post Study Work route as "probably one of the most generous schemes of its type in the world".

While the government continues to discuss new caps on immigration, Sultana in the meantime will carry on serving her grateful customers.

This brainy young woman with an interest in marketing laments: "It's very disappointing at the moment for me", before regretfully turning away to butter another sandwich.

You can hear the full report on 5 live Investigates on Sunday, 31 October at 2100 GMT on BBC Radio 5 live.

You can also listen again on the BBC iPlayer or by downloading the 5 live Investigates podcast.

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