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Foreign workers flee UK as pandemic and Brexit bite

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Foreign workers flee UK as pandemic and Brexit bite

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Lorenzo di Cretico, manager of the central London restaurant and club 100 Wardour Street, moved to the UK 12 years ago with high hopes.

He had been a manager in a trattoria in Rome but wanted to learn English and said that London “had always been my dream”. He found a pending job within a week.

Now, however, Mr. di Cretico is returning home. He only worked four months last year due to the closure of restaurants during the pandemic and, with little hope of the premises reopening anytime soon, decided to set up his own delicatessen in Rome.

“After this Covid situation, I see how the [UK hospitality] the industry was left out and I didn’t really like the way we were treated, ”said Mr. di Cretico. “I feel a little disappointed.”

Mr di Cretico is one of 1.3 million overseas-born workers who left the UK during the pandemic, including 700,000 in London, according to analysis government data by the Center of Excellence for Economic Statistics, a research center set up by the Bureau of National Statistics. Brexit was a consideration, but the pandemic has driven many of them.

With the government’s missteps on coronavirus support and a new variant spreading rapidly across the UK, community groups predict that many will never return.

The sectors that have seen the largest reductions in non-UK staff are the most affected by the economic damage caused by the crisis. The ESCoE estimates that around 158,000 non-UK workers have left or lost their jobs in the accommodation and food services sector, while over 217,000 in the retail sector have disappeared. Manufacturing, construction and transportation were also hit hard.

The mayor of the London office said the capital had seen its biggest increase in unemployment in 30 years, with non-UK workers making up a “substantial proportion” of those affected.

Stefan Gonera: ‘I don’t think about coming back’

Stefan Gonera has lived in London for over 20 years, first working as a construction worker before settling as a freelance plumber. But when the pandemic hit, work ceased and he returned to Rybnik in Poland in August after making a reconnaissance trip and being “impressed” with the situation there.

“I am back in a company and I am very happy with this situation,” he said. “I don’t think of coming back.”

Unions and community groups report a cocktail of reasons for the exodus. Some have fallen through gaps in financial support during the pandemic, while others feared travel restrictions will isolate them from friends and family for long periods of time. Mr di Cretico said if Brexit had not happened he would have considered staying “a little longer”.

Bar graph showing London losing the most non-UK workers of any other region

Maike Bohn, co-founder of the3million, which represents EU citizens living in the UK, said that many people like Mr Gonera thought their emotional and financial situation would be better served when they returned home.

EU residents who had not yet achieved settlement status before Brexit have found it difficult to access benefits and housing assistance, for example, she said. “The government’s Covid strategy has failed them. These are people who would have stayed, could they have had access to help. “

There are also sector specific issues. Dave Turnbull, hospitality manager at Unite, said many migrant workers in fields such as hospitality lived in staff quarters and found that when companies cut jobs they were kicked out of their jobs. houses.

Nadyalka Boncheva: “I want to come back and do my job. I love this. But the pandemic keeps me away ‘

Nadyalka Boncheva, a textile machinist trained for Fashion-Enter, a non-profit clothing manufacturer that supplies traditional retailers such as Asos and N Brown, returned home to Bulgaria for Christmas and said the fear of catching the virus, especially the more contagious strain, had prevented her from returning to the UK.

“I want to come back and do my job. I love it, ”she says. “But the pandemic is keeping me away. This is the concern. It’s very bad at the moment in the UK. “

With widespread job losses in the sectors most affected by the drop in foreign workers, few companies are concerned about the immediate short-term recruitment prospects, especially as many remain closed under current foreclosure regulations. But many business owners fear that migrant outflows could cause a jobs crisis when trade finally improves.

Ms Boncheva’s boss Jenny Holloway, managing director of Fashion-Enter, said 16% of its 192 employees are from Eastern Europe and several have not returned since Christmas. She had struggled to find qualified staff since Brexit as machinists had not been granted exemption from immigration rules and feared a rush in demand for clothing to lift the lockdown would leave her short of staff. She hopes that an academy she created will train enough machinists to fill the gap.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, the trade body, said with 1 million industry workers still on leave, businesses don’t know how many have returned home and will not return.

“In the short term, we will reopen with social distancing. . .[so] it will take time as we gradually get together before you realize just wait until i run out of workers, ”she said. “If this is a permanent change, we may find that we are at a point of labor shortage [as we were] in December 2019 before the pandemic. “

The British Retail Consortium, an industry body, said it was “extremely important” for EU workers to feel able to work in the UK, as overseas employees fill roles with key skills such as pharmacists and data analysis which is’ rare in the UK labor market. “.

Retail, manufacturing and hospitality are the three sectors that have lost the largest number of non-UK workers in the pandemic

Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council, said many yards were already operating below capacity, with some losing more than 20% of their workforce, while a survey released this month by The Make UK trade body has revealed that a third of UK manufacturers believe the country’s ability to attract international talent will decline.

In sectors such as retail and manufacturing, the decline in the number of foreign-born workers has been partly offset by an acceleration in automation, as companies face higher costs, increased absence rates and the desire of customers to minimize human contact.

But in service industries such as hotels, the impacts of the shortage are likely to be more severe.

Jeremy Goring, managing director of the Goring Hotel in Belgravia in London, said the pandemic had solved the shortage of foreign workers in the “worst possible way”, but “if and when [business returns] there will be an HR ‘bloodbath that the recruitment of UK residents will not resolve.

“Europeans are some of the most skilled hospitality professionals in the UK and yet we have managed to make them feel really unwelcome,” he said. “This education from top professionals has been an important factor in attracting the British to the profession.

It will change how restaurants, hotels and other high touch businesses that require human interaction operate, suggests Des Gunewardena, managing director of D&D London, owner of 100 Wardour Street and former employer of Mr di Cretico.

“This is not the problem of today, but that of tomorrow. We will have to run restaurants with fewer staff and different working practices, ”he said.

Additional reports by Jonathan Eley, graphics by Aleksandra Wisniewska

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