Insight: Scots at the sharp end of Brexit’s white paper immigration crackdown

Employees work in the Walkers shortbread factory in Aberlour.  Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Employees work in the Walkers shortbread factory in Aberlour. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
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As political and business leaders greet the white paper on immigration with horror, Dani Garavelli meets Scots at the sharp end of Brexit’s crackdown

When Karol Chojnowski first arrived in Scotland in 1999, Poland was not yet in the EU. Aged just 18, he came over on a short-term educational exchange, swapping Gdansk for Kirkcaldy. But then he developed an interest in computer networks, and so he stayed on after his HND, paying his way through the first year at Napier University, before taking some time out to work in a box factory in Dundee.

By the following year, 2004, Poland was a fully-fledged EU member; Chojnowski went back to complete his degree, before joining forces with a friend and setting up a website aimed at the influx of his fellow citizens arriving in the capital.

The website, now called emito.net, 
grew quickly as the Poles started spreading out into other cities and rural areas. Then, Chojnowski set up a second company, Przesylarka.pl, which links clients to courier services. Again, he and his friend started small and expanded until they were serving every European country. Emito.net employs four people but also commissions freelancers; Przesylarka.pl employs 20 in a recently opened Polish hub.

Last week, Chojnowski looked at the Westminster government’s white paper on immigration with something approaching despair. The fate of both his businesses hinges on what happens with Brexit. Any bureaucracy connected with new customs rules will lose Przesylarka.pl customers, while Emito.net depends on a growing Polish audience; and that audience will almost inevitably diminish.

Talking to Chojnowski, however, it is clear his distress over the white paper proposals is not only rooted in his fears for his companies’ future, but in a sense of personal rejection.

“I have been here 20 years now – longer than I lived in Poland – and I have never felt unwanted,” he says. “Every time I hear [negative] comments, I fight back. I say, ‘Go learn the language, do a course, volunteer, embed yourself a bit more and you will see how great this country can be.’

“But now the integration I have been fighting for is getting pulled apart by Brexit and this is hitting me on an emotional level. [Like all EU citizens based in the UK] it looks as though I will soon have to pay £70 to apply for settled status [residency rights]. I have been running businesses, I have been employing people. I have a wife and two children here, yet I am still being treated as an outsider.”

Finally published on Wednesday, the white paper, which sets out new rules ending freedom of movement post-Brexit, has been fiercely criticised, particularly in Scotland, which relies on immigration to offset its ageing population.

If it becomes law, those from EEA countries will join those from non-EEA countries in having to obtain permission to study or work in the UK. The white paper prioritises high-skilled workers over low-skilled workers, even though low-skilled workers keep some of the country’s most important industries afloat. Nicola Sturgeon called it an “act of vandalism on Scotland’s economy, communities, NHS and public services”.

The most controversial proposals include a £30,000 earnings threshold for high-skilled workers (although there is to be further consultation on the figure) and the introduction of one-year visas for low-skilled workers from “low-risk” countries (by which it appears to mean our former colonies) .

The low-skilled workers would have no access to public funds, would be prohibited from bringing family over and would have no route to permanent settlement.

The tone of the paper has been described as hostile while the figure of £30,000 is seen as “arbitrary” and unrealistic, particularly north of the Border.

“I don’t have a single friend who came from Poland who was earning more than £30,000 when they arrived here, though many of them are now highly positioned doctors, security consultants and bank managers,” says Chojnowski. “I don’t know where this figure comes from.”

To many minds, the problem with the £30,000 threshold is not merely that it is too high, but that it conflates income with skill levels and runs contrary to Scotland’s needs. Many of our industries, including tourism and hospitality, agriculture and seafood processing, could not function without low-skilled EU labour.

Scottish migration minister Ben Macpherson recently toured the north-east to look at the potential impact of the end of free movement. There, he visited companies such as Walkers Shortbread, which employs 500 EEA workers. In addition, 26,000 EEA nationals are believed to work in health, social care and public administration – so they are vital to the welfare of the nation.

“This white paper itself suggests the proposals might result in an 85 per cent reduction in EEA workers to Scotland,” says Macpherson. “Our modelling estimates this could cut real GDP in Scotland by 6.2 per cent by 2040 – equivalent to a fall of almost £6.8bn a year in GDP. In economic terms, in the short to medium term, it would cause real problems.

“The ending of free movement would be doubly regrettable as the contribution EEA citizens make to Scotland is remarkable. According to our analysis, each one contributes £34,400 in GDP, £10,400 in tax revenue.”

Macpherson believes the government’s proposed temporary solution of offering low-skilled workers the chance of a 12-month visa will be ineffectual. “If you look at the detail, it’s a year where you can’t bring your family and can’t access public funds. I don’t know how that’s going to be attractive to anyone.”

The concept of a £30,000 threshold also ignores the contribution made by those motivated less by money than by a desire to improve people’s lives.

Andrea Wieler Goodbrand, from Zurich, came to Scotland in 2009 to study at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. After completing her degree in 2011, she began work as a freelance translator – a job that was never going to take her over the £30,000 a year mark.

Today, she is the co-director of the Language Hub in Glasgow – a social enterprise aimed at providing affordable modern language classes and employment opportunities for teachers. Having taken a pay cut to do a job she believes in, she still earns less than £30,000.

“If these proposals had been in place when I came to Scotland, I would no longer be here,” she says. “I was freelance for many years – I would never have reached this figure, because you start out earning very little.

“I remember the first month, I earned £200. It took time to build up a clientele, then I started working for an institution here in Glasgow. But the maximum I ever earned was £26,000.”

The white paper proposes that those who study at a British university should be allowed to spend six months in the UK looking for work after graduation; but this is far short of the two years the universities are seeking, and is, in any case, no good to those who got their degrees elsewhere.

The 17 teachers currently at the language hub are mostly mothers. They earn good money (even those working in the coffee shop get the living wage) but they don’t have full-time jobs so their overall income is not huge.

Wieler Goodbrand says The Language Hub is already seeing a drop in applications, partly because of fears over Brexit and partly because the UK is no longer seen as a desirable place to live. “It is not painting a very attractive picture of itself – stockpiling food etc,” she says. “If you live in mainland Europe, why would you come to a country where there is uncertainty about food and medication?”

If the £30,000 threshold does pass into law it will become even harder to recruit new teachers and the number of classes may have to be cut. This is particularly detrimental as the hub serves as a breeding ground for future school teachers. “The Scottish Government has its progressive 1 plus 2 policy on modern languages,” says Wieler Goodbrand. “Some of those who come to work here, learn English and benefit from our experience. Then we help them with their applications for teacher training. They are an important resource to help realise the Scottish Government’s policy.”

As far as her own situation goes, Wieler Goodbrand knows the UK government has promised existing EU citizens can stay on, but doesn’t have much confidence in its assurances. “We don’t trust the government to protect us any more because they are on such a mission to curb immigration. It’s all about money. The contribution we actually make as members of society, and as employers, doesn’t matter.”

At Edinburgh University, Pavel Iosad, a lecturer in theoretical phonology, who is originally from Russia, has a slightly different take. He believes too much focus is being placed on how EU citizens are going to suffer when, given the white paper more or less extends the existing system, it merely serves to highlight the restrictions immigrants from non-EU countries already experience.

“A lot of the commentary around this seems to be: these rules are really bad, and, of course they are, but if you compare what they’ve proposed to what we’ve had for years now, they’re not so very different,” he says.

“What they have effectively done is to look at the current system and work out which bits are no longer going to work when the numbers are much bigger. So they have done away with the cap on Tier Two – the skilled worker visa – because they realise that when EU citizens start applying, it will no longer be sustainable.”

They are also talking about doing away with the need for a sponsor. “Now every SME in the country is likely to have to cope with all the bureaucracy involved, the government has decided to make it easier. But other than that they are not doing anything. They are not changing the fee level, the settlement rules or family reunification policies. It’s basically the same system, but only now are people noticing how awful it is,” says Iosad.

“What worries me most is they are not going to introduce any new routes in for low-skilled workers though, at the moment, especially in Scotland, EU nationals are filling in low-skilled sectors such as agriculture or social care or food manufacturing,” says Dr Paulina Trevena, who has been carrying out research on the impact of Brexit for the EU Citizens’ Rights Project.

“There is a lot of mention of low-skilled sectors having to drive change, but I am not quite sure how the government is expecting agriculture, for example, to reform to such an extent they won’t need low-skilled workers. How can you wipe out picking potatoes or strawberries or whatever?

“A lot of people who came here post-2004 did so because there was a demand for work in the low-skill sector, even if their own skill levels were higher, and they stayed because of the flexibility free movement offered. After some time, they could have access to social housing, in-work benefits, and maybe bring over family members.

“If this new system is introduced, it will be detrimental. What you have to remember is, it’s not just about employment, it’s about addressing demographic issues. People who are highly skilled are going to settle mainly in the urban centres but we know it’s the rural areas that really need to grow their populations.”

Ever since the referendum, the Scottish Government has been sending out positive messages to its citizens from the rest of the EU, acknowledging their value to both the country’s economy and its culture, and promising to support those who want to stay. Last week, it announced £800,000 of funding to Citizens Advice Bureaux across the country to provide information on the rights, entitlements and requirements for EEA citizens remaining in Scotland after Brexit. In particular, the money is aimed at helping those who are already here to negotiate their applications for settled status. Macpherson is pressing the Westminster government to scrap plans for the £70 settled status application fee and says, if it is not removed, the Scottish Government will find a way to cover the cost for those who work in devolved public services.

The minister is also pushing for Scotland to be given more flexibility within the UK immigration system. “What we want is the introduction of a Scottish visa. The tier two route would still be there, but there would also be another route to attract those earning less than £30,000,” he says.

So far the reception to the idea has been muted; but with Josh Hardie, deputy director-general of the CBI, saying the proposals “would be a sucker punch for many firms right across the country, particularly in sectors such as construction and healthcare”, the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland demanding an urgent rethink, and the Scottish Tourism Alliance insisting the UK government’s plans will exacerbate the existing recruitment crisis, the pressure is on to find a solution.

Without action, there is no doubt some of those who have built their lives here will leave.

Originally from Poland, Dorota Peszkowska works in Edinburgh University’s Bilingualism Matters and is project co-ordinator for the EU Citizens’ Rights project. She loves Scotland and is embedded in the community. But, because the white paper proposes extending restrictions on bringing over family members to existing EU citizens, she and her boyfriend are thinking of moving out of the UK, taking their skills with them.

“I do not want to move, but I also do not want to be separated from my family. My sister currently lives in Copenhagen and, unless I move, we might never again be able to live in the same country.

“Most people who come to the UK are interested in becoming members of society, in getting to know the culture, in spending time with people. But if these proposals go through, we will be treated like an economic asset, without many rights or opportunities. We will be treated like a business transaction,” she says.