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Who will wait tables and build houses? Britain's new immigration plan triggers outcry

Christina Boyle and Laura King, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LONDON -- The British government's new plan to exclude "low-skilled" immigrant workers like baristas, construction laborers and caregivers ignited nationwide outcry Wednesday from business groups and employers who warned that the restrictions could cripple a broad swath of industries.

The stringent post-Brexit immigration policy, unveiled by the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson late Tuesday, would make it far more difficult for nationals of European Union countries to live and work in Britain beginning next year, when last month's formal departure from the EU takes effect.

The proposed new rules, the most sweeping immigration overhaul in years, are a precursor of sweeping social and economic changes to be ushered in as Brexit takes hold. Critics have predicted many of those will be to Britain's long-term detriment.

The measures, however, would ease entry barriers for non-EU nationals. That reversal comes as Britain abandons a cornerstone of its membership in the bloc, free movement among what had been its 28 nations.

Anti-immigrant sentiment was a major driver behind Britain's 2016 vote to quit the EU -- an echo of the populism and xenophobia that has swept other European countries over the last several years. Johnson's harsh approach also mirrors that of President Donald Trump, who favors an immigration system that would essentially exclude the poor and unskilled.

The new rules demand that immigrant workers speak English; many currently do not. Most of those from elsewhere in the EU who have come to Britain over the last 15 years would not qualify for a work visa under the new standards, which require English ability and a well-paying job offer from an approved employer.

 

"No more bright young people, arriving in London with dreams of making it and seeing what they can do," Ian Dunt wrote on the website Politics.co.uk, describing the new policy. "No more musicians getting their big break ... No more care workers looking after aging Brits. No more construction workers from Poland, out in all weather, getting the job done."

In announcing the changes late Tuesday, Johnson's government said the new rules would "open the UK to the brightest and the best from around the world" while ending reliance on "cheap-low-skilled labor coming into the country."

Critics said the policy fails to take into account that hundreds of thousands of workers, including those who unblock sinks, care for the elderly and pick vegetables, might not meet language and salary requirements.

The government may allow certain exceptions to stem labor shortages in some fields. But it makes clear that Johnson's government is determined to make fundamental changes in the composition of country's low-skilled immigrant workforce.

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