Employing Foreign Workers in the UK

Picking ApplesCurrently British citizens, citizens of the European Economic Area (EEA) and Swiss nationals can work in the UK without needing a work permit. But nothing's ever that simple. The situation for at least three EEA countries is different and for those nationals, special permission is required.

Even though those in the groups mentioned above don’t need work permits, it’s your responsibility to check that the person you are about to employ is eligible to work in the UK. You can’t make an assumption. And ignorance is no defence.

This article will now go on to discuss employing foreign workers in the UK. If you are seeking information on how to employ foreign workers abroad (rather than in the UK), follow this link to our associated paper.

Why employ overseas nationals?

The UK is suffering a massive skills and labour shortage.

Firstly, there’s an urgent need to need to fill roles demanding, for example, technical skills or languages that are not available in the current UK talent pool. Considering the National Health Service, National Audit Office data shows that in 2016 there were just under 28,000 too few nurses, midwives and health visitors. There were also 5,000 too few doctors. Overseas workers provide the technical skills needed for these roles. In the past many nurses have been employed from the Philippines, the Caribbean and Africa, whilst trained doctors from countries in South Asia have been employed to overcome the shortage.

Whilst we hear a lot about the NHS, any manager in a technology-centric business will tell a similar story – we simply have too few engineers and scientists and other such specialisms.

Secondly, we need to employ overseas workers to do work that UK nationals simply won’t do. These tend to be temporary, low-skilled jobs – fruit picking and cockle picking come to mind. Temporary workers are attracted to the UK to take up these roles, many of which are seasonal.

So, overseas nationals are needed to fill roles that UK nationals can’t fill, either due to lack of training and relevant qualifications, or because they consider the roles too menial.

Workers from outside the EU

As discussed above most EEA workers are able to freely move through Europe and find work. The picture is somewhat different for potential workers from outside the EEA. Workers from outside the EEA must apply for a visa that allows them to work in the UK.

BYPM Search Your Fav Supplier Ad ImgWatch this space: if the Government presses on with its intention to curb immigration, the following will also apply after Brexit to all foreign workers.

Fundamentally, a foreign worker needs a visa to work here. There are five tiers in the government’s visa system, some with sub-categories.

Tier 1

These visas are for entrepreneurs, investors and exceptional people who have been recognised as leaders or emerging leaders. The Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa requires the Home Office to endorse the person as a leader, or emerging leader, in their field. Five hundred visas are offered twice a year.

The Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) visa is for someone wanting to set up or run a business in the UK. He or she must have access to at least £50,000 in investment funds to be able to apply.

The Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) visa applies to graduates who have been officially endorsed at having a business idea considered genuine and credible, and they also meet other eligibility criteria.

Finally, the Tier 1 (Investor) visa requires the person to have at least £2million to invest. Again, there are strict criteria to be adhered to. None of these visa types require the person to be sponsored by a firm.

Tier 2

There are five Tier 2 visa types. The intra-company transfer visa is designed for overseas employees coming to work in the UK arm of an organisation. The person will need to have been employed by the organisation in their home country for at least 12 months, or they must be paid at least £73,900 per year (at the time of writing). Graduate Trainee visas require the person to have been employed for at least three months in their home country. Tier 2 also includes a Minister of Religion visa and a Sportsperson visa. These types are pretty self-explanatory.

It’s the Tier 2 (General) that is likely to be relevant to many firms. Workers can apply for this type of visa if they have been offered a skilled job in the UK. There is a minimum salary that must be offered to the potential employee. The minimum has fluctuated between £30,000 and about £50,000 depending on the government threshold prevailing that month. The visa can only be used for occupations that appear on the Tier 2 Occupation list, or the Tier 2 Shortage list.

Tier 3

Tier 3 was designed for unskilled migrants to be able to work in unskilled or low skilled roles, for example seasonal agricultural work. Since in practice EU nationals have been filling these roles, the tier was never used and was discontinued in 2013.

Tier 4

Tier 4 is student visa for those offered a place on a course. Designed for those over 16, it is used for students attending UK colleges and universities. Again, there are certain criteria that the student must meet before being eligible.

Tier 5

Tier 5 is a temporary visa for specific scenarios: charity worker; creative and sporting; government authorised exchange; international agreement; religious worker and youth mobility scheme. People sponsored under this tier have a limited time during which they can work in the UK ranging from three months to two years, dependent on which Tier 5 visa they apply for.

So, based on the above information the most likely visa type for an organisation to consider is Tier 2 (General). You might think that the hard work is now done. Not so. Before a prospective employee can apply for a visa they must be sponsored by a firm (except in Tier 1). The process for doing this is discussed below.

Applying for a visa sponsorship licence

Firms wanting to employ someone coming from outside the EEA or Switzerland must be registered with the Home Office and have a sponsorship licence in place. The process for securing a sponsorship licence is onerous and requires a good deal of research to ensure that the correct data is provided in the application. If incorrect or incomplete data is provided the application if likely to be thrown out.

Having worked through the sponsorship process with clients, we know only too well the level of detail required to make the application.

It’s crucial to read, and re-read, the guidance notes provided. You’ll have questions about the information you are asked to provide. There is a helpline, and your call will be answered with reasonable speed. However, don’t expect to get real help. You’ll be told to refer to the guidance documents. And when you say “but they’re ambiguous” you’ll be told to "refer to the guidance documents"!

Before you make an application, you need to be sure that you meet the eligibility criteria. This includes having processes in place to monitor sponsored employees if you are granted a licence. This involves having robust HR management systems in place and operational. You also need to know what jobs(s) you require licences for. There is a standard occupational classification list (SOC) to which you’ll need to refer.

Next you need to assemble the relevant documents for submission. Make sure that all the documents conform with stated requirements. Get it wrong and your application will fail.

Having checked that the role you are recruiting to is on the list of occupations valid for sponsorship, you will need to prove that you have tried, and failed, to appoint someone already resident in the UK. There are strict criteria for this aspect of the application process. Simply sticking the vacancy on your website won’t be enough. You will need to demonstrate adequate recruitment effort with supporting evidence. It’s easy to fall foul of this resident labour market test. If you phone the helpline they’ll refer you to the guidance documents – and as noted, they’re ambiguous.

Having sorted the proof of failed recruitment , which may take a few months, you are ready to make the application. Read and re-read the guidance notes. Work out how to assemble the documents. Take copies of the documents. Pay the relevant fee and send off your application pack.

In our experience, getting the detail right, submitting the correct documents in the correct order and fully completing the application form will ensure that your application is able to succeed if you meet the assessment criteria. We may have been lucky so far, but we’ve managed to do it in as little as four weeks from application to licence grant!

From my comments on making a sponsorship application you might think it’s not worth becoming a sponsor. If you need skills from outside the EEA then you should consider applying. It’s not cheap, it’s not easy – but it is doable. It’s frustrating and the attention to detail is important.

Once you have the licence

You must manage the sponsorship process. It’s up to the prospective employee to apply for a visa, but you need to provide them with a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS). It’s important for you to keep full records regarding your sponsorship certificates.


The current system is difficult to manage and there is no guarantee that you will be granted a sponsorship licence. If you do get a licence, there is no guarantee that the person you offer a job to will be able to get a visa. The numbers allowed in any allocation month are capped and once the ceiling is reached, no more visas will be granted.

Can you play the system and get the person to apply for their visa early in the allocation period? Yes, you can, if only there was clarity about when the allocation period begins. Since this is unknown everyone plays a guessing game as to whether they have applied before the cap for that particular period and whether the minimum salary required is now low or high.

After Brexit we are likely to need reinstatement of the Tier 3 visa allowing unskilled migrants to come and work in the UK. The whole Tier structure may well get overhauled. And, who knows – if we’re really lucky it will be simplified too!

If you want any help in applying for a sponsorship licence give us a call.

Further Reading

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