THE hospitality industry in Northern Ireland sustains around 60,000 jobs and forms the backbone of the tourism sector, and as such has benefited from the developing tourism economy of the region.
But the expansion of the hospitality industry to meet the needs of the growing tourism economy has added to the challenge of recruiting staff at all levels, and many businesses rely on recruitment from other EU member regions.
Difficulty in recruiting people is something that is reflected across many businesses, but when your sector is reliant on what the government calls semi-skilled and non-skilled workers it is more complex. Better described as soft skilled, many have considerable skill levels, but these aren’t based on academic qualifications.
The UK government has made it clear that it wants to curtail the number of migrant workers, which creates a serious problem. We will have 30,000 job vacancies to fill by 2024 – a volume of workers we simply don’t have here within our own population. Right now, we need two thousands of chefs to meet demand.
The recent white paper from the Home Office on post Brexit migration thresholds on workers coming into the UK has made for difficult reading for our sector. It simply does not address issues such as the out of kilter £30,000 pay threshold for access and a skills requirement beyond the roles within the wider hospitality sector.
Despite recognising Northern Ireland’s unique labour challenges, it fails to understand that lower skilled and non-skilled workers provide the necessary support for the skilled and semi-skilled jobs which are just as important. We have a worker shortage, yet the government wants to make the situation worse – what sort of policy is that?
The simple fact is that the Home Secretary Sajid Javid must get his head out of the gloomy Brexit clouds and make for greater allowances for Northern Ireland in general and the hospitality sector in particular. Migrant workers bring international experience and are an integral part of our hospitality workforce in Northern Ireland and are a key component of the success of our offer which is a pillar of the economy.
To make this happen, we need our Secretary of State Karen Bradley to apply real pressure to her Cabinet colleague and not pay us lip service. We challenge her to actively lobby on our behalf during the current consultation period of the white paper.
If she does not, and the potential hospitality sector workforce is restricted and curtailed in who it can employ, it will be clear that little was done to affect change on our behalf. We can’t take that risk and need action now.
We need to protect those not from here that they can continue to work in existing employment and ensure mutual recognition of qualifications on the island of Ireland post-Brexit.
Overall, we need a migration policy that takes account of the Northern Ireland Shortage Occupational List, but if a regional approach is not achievable, then a UK wide migration scheme with a Northern Ireland bolt-on sectoral based scheme for hospitality is critical.
:: Colin Neill is chief executive of Hospitality Ulster