An opportunity for Pakistanis in the United Kingdom’s job market?
During early days, the Brexit campaign was fuelled by concerns raised by pro-Brexit lobbies, on foreign labour replacing British workforce. Now, as Brexit has happened, the situation seems to favour an opposite conclusion, as the United Kingdom needs more foreign labour, particularly in skilled categories.
This offers a great opportunity for Pakistan to get a better share in the UK’s labour market, particularly high-skilled professions. There is a shortage of skilled labour in major occupations such as healthcare and education, and due to the inherent language and education system harmonisation with the UK, Pakistan should harness this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The UK’s points-based system, for skilled migration, treats EU and non-EU citizens equally and aims to attract people who can contribute to the UK’s economy. The new immigration policy extends the current Global Talent route to non-EU citizens on the same basis as EU citizens. The most highly skilled, who can achieve the required level of points, will be able to enter the UK without job offer if they are endorsed by a relevant and competent body. The highly-skilled scientists and researchers may migrate to the UK without a job offer; subject to approval/recognition by relevant bodies. The new system offers further relaxation for PhD holders in the relevant field, especially in STEM subjects
For Pakistanis, the UK has always been a top destination for economic migration. According to the United Nations migrant stock database, Pakistani-born population that migrated to the UK was around 600,000 in 2019. This number has nearly tripled over the last three decades, from 228,000 in 1990 to 605,000 in 2020 indicating that migration of Pakistani labour force continued during even during the time when UK was part of the EU, despite the preferences accorded to the EU nationals. There have been more male migrants (55 per cent) but women too are represented (at around 45 per cent).
These figures do not include people who migrated through informal channels or remain undocumented or are offspring of migrants. All these groups, combined, represent around 1.7 million Pakistani diaspora in the UK. A disaggregated data of these migrants is not available but, in general, most of them are believed to work in low-skilled categories, such as taxi drivers, takeaway deliveries, small shops and other similar businesses.
These workers are a key source of Pakistan’s foreign exchange earnings, through remittances. In 2018, Pakistani workers in the UK remitted around $1.4 billion (almost similar to the value of merchandise exports to the UK) accounting for 0.6 per cent of Pakistan’s GDP and 10 per cent of total foreign remittances. In December 2020 they sent around $327 million, the third largest after Saudi Arabia ($625 million) and the UAE ($511 million).
At present, focus of the UK’s policy and labour market is to attract a highly- skilled labour force, particularly in the services sector, such as healthcare and education. There, however, is still a demand for primary labour and farm workers due to seasonal movement of labour in the agriculture sector. Moreover, there is an ever-increasing demand for services provided through offshoring, particularly in the information technology, data and analytics, financial and related services.
Contrary to previous practice, when the UK was part of the EU, merit rather than EU nationality would be a key selection criterion in foreign labour. This would also translate in more opportunities for students to find a job and less bureaucracy for organisations that employ non-EU workers. The earlier post study work (PSW) scheme has been re-introduced, allowing students more flexibility to find a job after graduation.
UK registered around 300,000 net migrants per year during 2000-2010 but the number dropped to 260,000 in the last decade (2010-2020). The drop partly reflects uncertainty surrounding immigration policy after Brexit especially during the last four years. The new migration policy has addressed this uncertainty and opened numerous avenues for skilled work force.
In order to harness this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there ought to be a concerned and coordinated national-level effort in Pakistan. A special cell/task force may be created in the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development (OPHRD), headed by Syed Zulfiqar Abbas Bukhari, probably the best person to understand job market dynamics in the UK. This cell/task force may focus, in coordination with relevant public and private sector stakeholders, on the following points:
1- Prepare the trained/skilled workforce in key areas such as information technology, healthcare, education and finance. Focus on STEM education, which is better for Pakistan in any case, in the longer-term.
2- Work with relevant counterparts in the UK in mutual recognition of qualifications and obtaining necessary licensing and regulatory approvals for Pakistani professionals entering the UK’s job market.
3- Negotiate MOUs or similar understandings with professional bodies/associations in the UK to get preferential market access for Pakistani labour force.
4- Mobilise existing Pakistani professionals in the UK, through support of Pakistan High Commission, in creating opportunities for aspiring professionals for entering in the UK’s labour market.
Such opportunities do not present themselves often, and certainly Pakistan is not the only country able to harness it as there are many similarly-placed countries looking at it. The winner will be the one who takes quick action with a proactive approach.
The writers are international economists