Recommendations On Visas And Employment In The Garment Manufacturing Sector
Updated: Apr 5
After decades of decline, British clothing manufacturing has seen renewed interest from brands and is facing interesting growth prospects. However, the EU exit process and its implications on freedom of movement sparked worry across employers in the sector – most of their workers are EEA citizens. After hearing growing concerns from the sector, the APPG for Textiles and Fashion convened a meeting to investigate the sentiments regarding Brexit and the future of UK manufacturing, counting with the presence of factory owners across the UK, as well as academics, machinists and government officials. Attendees had a chance to voice their concerns during the meeting, as well as responding to a questionnaire that sheds light on the current state of the sector.
The Fashion and Textiles Industry
The Fashion and textile industry employs almost 1 million workers nationwide, with a huge potential for increase as brands are returning to the UK in a shift towards local manufacturing. However, if manufacturers cannot meet current demand for staffing, the future growth of the sector faces severe risks.
Following a sharp decline in UK manufacturing since the 1980s, the textiles, footwear and clothing manufacturing sector has experienced a period of growth starting from 2011. Reasons include a shift to lean production models, which favour quick turnaround times by producing locally, and the international appeal of the ‘Made in Britain’ tag.
However, sector stakeholders expressed hesitation and uncertainty: in addition to feeling unsupported by local governments and business policies, the event of the EU exit poses a huge threat to access to skilled labour. There is interest from brands in British manufacturing, but respondents to the survey suggested that the lack of skilled talent is the most pressing obstacle to growth, as many UK citizens do not currently have the necessary high level skills or interest to take up machinist technicians and garment manufacturing roles.
To address these concerns, this paper explores the idea of including machine operator and garment manufacturing roles in the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) allowing for machinists to be hired internationally.
Skills in the Shortage Occupation List
The UK is due to leave the European Union since the triggering of Article 50. With Brexit, free movement between the UK and EU member states will cease and EU citizens seeking to move to the UK for permanent employment will require a visa. Under the current visa system, the Tier 2 route is utilised for general work. The Tier 2 visa has a number of requirements, including an immigration cap, a salary threshold, sponsorship from a certified organisation, a skills requirements and a citizen test. The Home Office is responsible for overseeing migration practices, with migration policies falling under the scrutiny of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) – a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Home Office.
The Tier 2 provides a number of barriers for non-EEA citizens to access jobs in the UK, but there are systems in place to ensure that immigration is supporting the UK economy. Compiled by the MAC, job roles that are considered to be in shortage of supply in the UK are included in the SOL and are exempt from a number of requirements.
The conditions for roles being added to the SOL are:
Skill level RQF 6 and above, with skills level being lowered to RQF 3 after the EU exit implementation period £30,000 salary threshold for established professionals Eligible for the Tier 2 (General) route
Applicants being considered for roles in the SOL are exempt from some Tier 2 visa requirements:
There is no need for applicants to pass the resident labour market test,Jobs are prioritised if the Tier 2 (General ) limit of 20,700 is reached, and in practice, jobs in the SOL cannot be turned down when the cap binds,No requirement to meet the £35,800 salary threshold required for obtaining settlement after 5 years
Manufacturers operating in the textiles, clothing and footwear sectors are struggling to fill current vacancies and Brexit will cut an important source of labour. This paper explores the idea of including the following roles in the SOL, to facilitate employment after Brexit: 5411 Weavers and knitters, 5413 Footwear and leather working trades, 5414 Tailors and dress-makers and 5419 Textiles. However, given the current conditions for jobs to be included in the SOL, this paper also outlines recommendations for new criteria for the SOL.
Textiles, clothing and footwear manufacturing in the SOL
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Textiles and Fashion surveyed manufacturers across the UK to map the current state of employment in the UK garment manufacturing sector. Out of the respondents surveyed, more than half employed EEA citizens for machinist roles, and only around 20% employed non-EEA citizens. Manufacturers based in Greater London boasted the highest number of EEA machinists relative to their machinist workforce, whereas manufacturers based in the East Midlands, which includes manufacturing hotspots such as Leicester, had the highest number of domicile workers. Across all regions, no manufacturer employed more non-EEA citizens than they did either British nationals or EEA nationals.
Furthermore, more than 80% of respondents currently have unfilled machinist vacancies, and out of the manufacturers who have openings, the number of vacancies account for an average of 65% of existing positions. One respondent reported six open positions for every position filled. When asked whether the UK currently has sufficient domestic skill and interest to fulfil the empty roles, more than three quarters of respondents answered ‘No’. Furthermore, more than half of respondents think Brexit will contribute to an increase in machinist vacancies – a worrying amount, considering that respondents have cited up to 30 machinist vacancies per factory. If employers are currently struggling to recruit, the process will be further complicated after freedom of movement with the European Union ceases.
Respondents also noted that in manufacturing hotspots such as Leicester, there is very high competition for labour supply, which puts smaller manufacturers at a disadvantage. Bringing in foreign workers would increase the labour supply, allowing the industry to further prosper as it would sustain the operation of existing companies without taking local jobs. The lack of skilled labour could potentially risk local jobs, as factories that are unable to continue their operations due to lack of labour could choose to relocate.
Currently, the MAC has four SIC codes for roles that would be relevant for the textiles manufacturing industry: 5411 Weavers and knitters, 5413 Footwear and leather working trades, 5414 Tailors and dress-makers and 5419 Textiles, garments and related trades not elsewhere classified. The jobs listed within these occupations do not fully encompass the spectrum of functions within the sector, and the SIC roles do not distinguish between bespoke tailoring services and larger production (i.e. to fulfil brand orders), which require different skills. Stakeholders identified three main roles within garment manufacturing: machine operators, pattern cutters and garment technologists. According to the National Careers Service, the roles of Pattern cutters, Garment (sewing) machine operators and Garment technologists are the following:
Changing machine settings for different jobsFeeding material through the machineStitching together clothes or other itemsChecking finished work against the pattern instructionsCleaning and oiling machinesSewing different fabrics like cotton, wool, leather or industrial textiles
Draping pieces of material over a dummy, shaping and pinning them around the ‘body’ until they fit correctly, then cutting out a pattern based on the piecesAltering and shaping flat, standard pattern ‘blocks’ into a styleModifying non-standard pattern ‘bases’ taken from the company’s pattern libraryWorking with machinists to make up samplesUsing computer-aided design programs to make up some patternsUsing traditional hand-drawing methodsWorking closely with the in-house sample machinist or manufacturer to make up an example garmentWorking with designers and garment technologists to produce the final pattern
Suggesting changes to clothing pattern designsGiving advice on suitable fabricsMaking sure garments can be produced within budgetOverseeing fabric testing and fittings of first samplesMaking sure that the correct garment construction methods are usedResponding to product queriesAnalysing product returns and faultsProducing quality control reports
Adding a distinct occupation for Garment machine operatorsAdding a distinct occupation for Pattern cuttersAdd a distinct occupation for Garment technologistDistinguish between tailor and Seamstress/ dressmaker.
Currently, the Migration Advisory Committee sets the skill level for Tier 2 at RQF 6 for all occupations, with an exception to the creative industries, where the minimum requirement is an RQF level. The RQF level requirement is not in relation to the applicant’s education, but the educational requirements of the role. Machinists and garment manufacturing workers are currently listed as RQF level 3.
Highly skilled does not always mean highly paid: this is seen again and again across the fashion and textiles sector. More than 80% of respondents consider stitching to be a high-skilled job, the rest consider it to be medium skilled. No respondents thought it to be a low skilled job. The skill requirement is further evidenced by the five years of training necessary to become a skilled operator. One respondent noted that there may be up to 14 different operations necessary for the completion of a garment, which is not a task for a low-skilled workforce. The Home Office declared their intention to reduce the RQF requirements for Tier 2 visas from RQF 6 to RQF 3 after the end of the EU exit implementation period.
It is recognised that investing in local skills should be a priority, and should not be replaced by bringing international labour, a point flagged by a respondent and emphasised by the MAC. However, respondents also noted that machine operating jobs are not of interest to the UK workforce, therefore providing training would not solve the skills shortage. F
Revising the level qualification framework which looks beyond traditional qualificationsIncluding RQF 3 level jobs in the SOL.
The Tier 2 visa requires a minimum of £30,000 annual salary as an experienced hire, and £20,800 as a ‘new entrant’. The MAC’s justification for the £30,000 threshold is £30,000 is the level of household income at which an average family of EEA migrants starts making a positive contribution to public finances. Gauging appropriate salary levels is an imprecise feat: according to the ONS, the weekly average earnings of the Manufacturing – textiles, footwear and clothing sector is £428 (July 2019).
The MAC puts the average salary for those SOC roles at £18,100, which would be £348 weekly salary. The majority of respondents claimed their machinists earned between £280 and £380 weekly. These did not take into consideration regional discrepancies, but according to the data collected by the APPG, the manufacturers offering the highest average weekly salary were based in Greater London, with an average of £488, followed by the South East at £319.75. The lowest weekly averages were in the North East £231 and £264 in the West Midlands.
The MAC is currently carrying out a consultation on the future immigration system in the UK, which will review salary levels, as their recommendation to maintain the £30,000 threshold set out in the review of the SOL was not accepted by the government. One respondent observed that UK workers would not earn £30,000 in a machinist role, therefore it is unrealistic to expect non-UK workers to earn that amount.
Make salary thresholds industry-specificTake into consideration regional discrepanciesRevise minimum working hours.
Overall, a loss of skilled workers across the industry’s extended supply chain would severely impact the vibrant £33bn fashion sector, and could trigger manufacturers to move from the UK to EU territory generating negative consequences for the country’s economic prospects. As well as supporting industry growth, fostering local production has strong environmental and socio-economic arguments. These include boosting the local economies and developing resources for provision of skills, as well as reducing emissions from transport due to a reduced the distance between producer and seller. It can also be argued that local production allows for better monitoring and regulation of labour conditions and including machinist workers in the SOL could be a useful way to secure safe and transparent labour, as undocumented workers risk seeking jobs in unregulated factories thus being subject to exploitation.
A coherent education, immigration and business government strategy is necessary to secure the prosperity of the sector – government should support a framework that provides an attractive landscape for new players and to provide certainty for existing manufacturers so that they can make the necessary investments to grow their businesses.
Tamara Cincik CEO of Fashion Roundtable, Secretariat for the APPG for Textiles and Fashion said: “the General Election has taken place and now it is important that the concerns of the fashion industry are front and centre of immigration policy post Brexit, ensuring that our thriving UK fashion sector remains buoyant and successful. By advocating that fashion manufacturing workers are added to the shortage occupation visa list, we hope the UK fashion sector, which relies heavily on immigrant skilled workers will not be decimated by a huge exodus of talent. We recognise the need to build these skills back into the UK’s educational provision, something which flagships, such as Fashion Enter have worked hard to support, with their educational platforms. Fashion is a UK success story and we aim to ensure it continues to remain through transition and beyond.”