The increased illegal migrant worker risk and how to reduce it

Susie Thomson 2021 - Global Banking | FinanceBy Susie Thomson

Happy New Year? Not if you’re an employer and you fail to carry out thorough checks on whether your staff are legally employable under UK law, says Susie Thomson of Matrix Security Watchdog.

The Government’s new five-point plan to curb immigration includes significantly increasing the penalties levied on companies for taking on illegal immigrant workers. Last year, employing someone who’s not permitted to work in the UK would have cost an employer up to £20,000 in fines per worker identified. Surely a pretty good deterrent. But not sufficient as far as the Government is concerned. Under new regulations likely to come into force in February, this figure is being tripled to £60,000.

Assessing the risk

So, what’s the danger of employers falling foul of this freshly hiked Immigration Surcharge? Well, despite the furore over UK immigration, incredibly we don’t know how many people live in the country illegally. The best guess we have is a 2020 study conducted by the Greater London Authority. This estimated that between 594,000-745,000 undocumented people were living in the UK.

Now, that amounts to about 1% of the total population. So, if these statistics hold water – and they’re all we’ve got to go on – it means that if you employ 100 people, there’s a good chance one could be working illegally. With, of course, the risk increasingly significantly in sectors employing high proportions of migrant staff.

One in four businesses on average currently employs migrant workers, according to the ‘Migrant workers and skills shortages in the UK’ report by the CIPD, published in May 2023. The study defines ‘migrant’ as those who are born overseas, regardless of whether they have become UK citizens, and reports that migrant employment rates are highest in IT (37%) and healthcare (32%). Meanwhile, the CIPD’s Labour Market Outlook winter 2022/23 reported that business services (27%), education (22%) and construction (22%) were the next most likely sectors to use the immigration system to fill vacancies.

Perfect storm

The plain fact is that, as this flurry of statistics shows, UK companies across the business spectrum, both large and small, are now caught in a perfect storm. Brexit-induced skills shortages are hitting them hard. They’ve been forced out into the candidate marketplace, desperate to fill roles as quickly as possible so they can function. But this rush-to-recruit imperative could result in major financial penalties if they don’t screen candidates thoroughly – not to mention their existing staff – which will obviously slow down the process.

Whether you think the fine increase is disproportionate or not, the reality is it will be applied very soon. Those companies that didn’t heed the warnings last year and put robust screening practices in place must get a move on. That’s because the only way an employer can obtain a statutory excuse against liability for an illegal working civil penalty is by carrying out compliant right-to-work verification in line with Home Office guidance.

No room for error

The problem is that such guidance is rarely straightforward and can be difficult to interpret correctly. Seeking professional employee screening help provides assurance that a costly mistake will be avoided, while also accelerating the process. This ensures recruitment can be carried out as fast as possible, while also significantly reducing the risk of being fined for employing someone illegally. It also provides the confidence that the candidate pool can be widened to include migrant workers without fear of legal repercussions.

UK businesses – and therefore the economy – increasingly relies on migrant workers to fill the skill gaps that still seem to be widening. The new rules mean that it has never been more important to get the candidate screening process right.