The Tory War on Migrant Workers’ Families

International workers are the latest target in the Tory war on the family. Catriona MacDonald explains why new laws will hurt many migrant workers and help nobody at all.

Conservatives have long considered themselves the defenders of the traditional family unit. The modern Conservative Party has turned out to be quite the opposite. Not satisfied with the two-child cap, the spiralling cost of childcare and deep cuts to social security, the Tories’ war on the family shows no signs of stopping in their final few months in office, and international workers are their latest target. Significant changes to UK immigration law aimed at reducing net migration at all costs look set to lock in the legacy of the hostile environment and cause real social and economic damage to Scotland.

From spring 2024, new restrictions will impact international workers in key industries like hospitality, as well as care workers and their families. It is not only international citizens who will be hit by new changes. Increases to the minimum salary threshold for partner visas will also affect the families of British citizens and other people settled in Scotland.

The headline change is a huge increase in the minimum salary threshold for the Skilled Worker visa from £26,200 to £38,700 from 4 April 2024. To take one example, a chef must now be paid £38,700 to be eligible for a Skilled Worker visa. The average salary for chefs in the UK is £26,000. This means as many as 95% of chef positions and other key hospitality roles are effectively no longer open to international workers. The biggest impact of this salary threshold increase will be felt in the hospitality industry, according to analysis by the Migration Observatory. Hospitality contributed £5bn to the Scottish economy in 2022, but businesses are struggling to cope when vacancies have increased by 72% since the UK left the EU. Industry body UKHospitality has warned that these changes to the Skilled Worker visa will only make this problem worse.

The UK Government agenda attempts to divide working and enable a downward wage spiral in Scotland.

The UK Government claims that this new salary threshold will prevent wages being undercut by cheaper overseas labour. Trade unions are familiar with these attempts to divide workers instead of addressing the real issues in the labour market. International comparisons show a fair balance can be reached. In Norway, for example, to obtain a residence permit for work purposes, an international worker’s pay and working conditions must not be poorer than they would be for an equivalent Norwegian worker.

In any case, the new salary threshold will have a limited impact on immigration numbers. More than half of all Skilled Worker visas were in the Health and Care category last year, and these workers are exempt from the salary threshold. Reducing the number of international care workers is a priority for the UK Government. Since it cannot target their wages, it has instead turned to their families. In 2023, there were 120,000 partners and children granted visas as dependants of Skilled Workers in the Care Worker and Senior Care Worker categories. This works out at as just over one family member per care worker, which the UK Government called “disproportionate”. As of 11 March 2024, these two visa categories are banned from bringing their partners and children with them to the UK. This means care workers – lauded a few short years ago as essential frontline workers in the pandemic – now face an impossible choice between splitting up their families and missing out on work opportunities. It is likely that many will choose to take their highly sought skills elsewhere. Since the UK Government introduced a similar ban on dependants for most international students, their numbers have dropped by more than a third.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s care sector is facing a recruitment crisis. Nearly half of social care service providers have unfilled vacancies. Unison and GMB have strongly criticised the UK Government’s new restrictions on international care workers. Crossing 120,000 people off the annual migration figures may appeal to a UK Government obsessed with immigration, but it comes at the cost of essential public services. The result is that people in need of care are forced to turn to mainly female family members to fill in the gaps left by overstretched social care providers.

British citizens with international families might expect to be treated more fairly. But the UK Government’s plan is that British citizens and those settled in Scotland whose non-British partners require visas will have to be earning a minimum of £38,700 – a huge increase on the current minimum income threshold of £18,600 and well over Scotland’s median salary of just over £30,000. Much like the two-child cap on social security, this is effectively a restriction on the rights of low-paid workers to start families. After public outrage, the UK Government has staggered implementation to £29,000 from 11 April 2024, followed by two further increases to reach the final threshold of £38,700 in early 2025. It is unlikely that the Tories will be in power to see this policy through, but Labour have not committed to reversing it, despite previous plans to scrap the minimum income requirement for partner visas entirely.Reversing the hostile environment must be a key priority for the next UK Government to protect workers and prevent further social and economic harm. Immigration remains reserved to Westminster, despite efforts by the Scottish Government to negotiate a tailored immigration policy for Scotland and to reframe the issue with proposals for a better immigration system for an independent Scotland. When the Westminster parties swap seats in the coming months, the new UK Government must change direction and deliver a fair deal for all workers who have chosen to make Scotland their home.

Catriona MacDonald is an immigration paralegal and former immigration and asylum caseworker for a Member of the UK Parliament.