Taking the guesswork and uncertainty out of immigration  

Fragomen is a worldwide specialist provider of immigration services and it aims to take the guesswork and uncertainty out of the process of relocating to another country. The company has a huge range of clients from global names to start-ups. Kelly Chua, Director at Fragomen, spoke to Intelligent CXO about how UK immigration has changed since Brexit and how the current policies support the technology sector. She also explains how start-ups can access global talent and how they, too, can navigate the process.

Can you tell me more about Fragomen?

Fragomen is the world’s largest specialist provider of immigration services. We have just under 6,000 people in 62 offices around the world. We work with a huge range of clients from the largest global companies, many of which will be household names, right through to the smaller start-ups and private clients as well. Our goal is really to help our clients with their immigration needs.
At a corporate level, we’re helping our clients manage immigration programmes through a range of consultancy and advisory services. As you can imagine, businesses have had loads to react to in the last several years from the pandemic to the situation in Ukraine and Brexit. All of these things have impacted mobility and so it’s really our job to help our clients through these really challenging situations.
We do that through using our proprietary technology to provide our clients with data, reporting and analytics, to help them make the process of moving people around the world as efficient and as easy as possible. Because very much at the heart of everything is this human element. It’s a massive decision for someone to relocate to another country and often the immigration aspect – applying for a visa – is just a tiny part of that process. But nonetheless, if you get it wrong, it has a huge impact.

How has UK immigration changed since Brexit?

Since Brexit, the government has introduced a whole new points-based immigration system. One of the big concerns for employers from an immigration perspective was the impact on the labour market with Brexit as free movement ended. Suddenly EU nationals were faced with having to apply for a visa to live and work in the UK. As you can imagine, that meant there was this huge pool of labour that suddenly had a barrier to entry, to moving, to living and working in the UK.

And actually, the new system in many ways, has had to be much more accessible than the old system. For example, there used to be a cap on the number of overseas workers that could come to the UK as a sponsored worker if they were a non-EU national. That cap was set at 20,700 people per year. That cap has now been completely removed. There were obviously some caveats and exceptions so that was never really the strict limit in terms of numbers. But nonetheless, there’s now no limit whatsoever.

If you look at the actual requirements for a sponsored visa, they’ve also changed. For example, the salary requirements for the main sponsor work visa has been reduced, the skill level requirements for sponsorship has also been reduced. It used to be employers can only sponsor people in what were deemed to be degree-level roles or equivalent, whereas that’s now reduced to A-level or equivalent.

There’s also been the removal of the resident labour market test and that was a really lengthy, prescriptive recruitment and advertising process that many employers had to go through before they offered sponsorship. That’s been completely removed. The process has been made more streamlined in some ways and overall, the options for sponsorship have massively broadened, because you have a much broader range of roles that can now be sponsored in the UK.

We have to remember that it’s still an evolving system. There’s been many new visa categories launched over the last few years, particularly really focused on attracting highly skilled workers to the UK. The government haven’t been shy about setting out their ambitions to boost the economy to grow certain sectors, such as the tech sector. We do anticipate that the immigration system will continue to develop and to facilitate some of those aims for growth and development further.

In what way does the current immigration policy support technology businesses and help companies bring in the best talent from around the world?

I think for most employers, including technology businesses, the main route they are going to rely on is going to be sponsorship, primarily under the skilled worker category or possibly under the global business mobility category, which is specifically for transferring existing overseas employees from overseas branches to the UK on a temporary basis, but for most, it’s going to be the skilled worker visa.

And in order to sponsor an individual, the employer needs to first apply for a sponsor licence. That’s an online application followed up by providing supporting documentation. The business will need to evidence a genuine trading business and that it can meet its compliance obligations as a sponsor.

That process tends to take roughly around six to eight weeks, but it can be expedited by paying additional priority fees. And once the licence is obtained, then the sponsor and the individual being sponsored can move forward to applying for the actual visa. And again, that process typically takes around six to eight weeks, preparing all the supporting documents etc. But it can vary.

It’s worth mentioning that there are many roles in the tech sector that actually qualify for what’s called the shortage occupation list. Now these are roles that the government recognises are in particularly short supply in the UK. They further facilitate employers to sponsor people into these roles, and they do that in a couple of ways. I mentioned earlier that there is a salary threshold for sponsorship in the UK but they actually reduced that salary threshold further for roles under the shortage occupation list. And, in addition, they made the actual visa application fees lower as well, making it a little bit more accessible, potentially for smaller businesses with lower budgets.

Examples of roles that fall under the shortage occupation list would be IT business analysts, architects, systems designers, programmers, software development professionals, web designers and other web development professionals, amongst other roles. So that’s always worth considering.

I mentioned the government has launched several visa categories over the last couple of years and they’re constantly being reformed as well. For example, there’s the start-up and innovator visa. These are visas for individuals that want to bring an innovative business to the UK.

There’s also a global talent visa. So that is a visa for those who are exceptionally talented or show exceptional promise in their particular field of expertise. They’re going to be potentially industry-leading individuals and there is a category for those in the digital technology sectors.

There are other visas which really aren’t particularly focused on the tech sector, such as the graduate visa, for example. That’s open to individuals who are UK graduates and it allows them to stay in the UK for two or three years post-graduation, and they can work for any employer.

There have been a number of well reported job losses in the global technology sector. What happens to those who are sponsored to work in the UK and then lose their jobs?

When a sponsored worker loses their role, the employer is obligated to inform the authorities within ten days of the end of their employment. If the individual has more than six months left on their visa, then typically the Home Office will take curtailment action, which means they’ll take action to cancel the visa. And they will usually contact the individual and give them around 60 days in which to either switch immigration category or leave the UK. In practice, that period of 60 days is discretionary. It can sometimes actually end up being longer because it can take the Home Office some time to actually take curtailment action once the notification is filed. But we usually do advise our clients just to be on the conservative side to assume they’ll have 60 days within which to take that action.

Usually individuals may be searching for new employment and they will need to ensure the new employer is able to sponsor them and prior to starting work with the new employer, they would actually have to apply for a new visa.
But there’s also potentially other options that the individual would be able to consider. I mentioned some of these other visa categories that exist, as well as potentially exploring family options. For example, if someone is married or in a long-term relationship with a British citizen or someone who is settled within the UK, or perhaps their partner is themselves sponsored, and the individual may have an option to switch to being a dependent.

The competition for talented people is fierce across the sector. Does this present an opportunity for smaller and scale-up tech businesses to access global talent?

Yes, absolutely. I think the prevailing view is that over the pandemic, lots of online businesses boomed. We were all forced to stay at home, socialise at home, work from home, shop more from home and we were using many more online services, and many tech businesses, as a consequence, grew over the pandemic.

As life returns more to normal, there’s a little bit of a correction happening and what we’re seeing is quite a lot of job losses, particularly from big tech giants. I think that absolutely presents an opportunity for smaller businesses because there may be some very highly skilled, very employable people who are now already in the UK and are seeking new employment in order to stay in the UK.

Perhaps some of these smaller businesses may not originally have names that attract that top tier talent or maybe wouldn’t have been able to support the relocation costs of moving to the UK but now these individuals are here. I think it’s really important for small businesses to be aware of how they can facilitate that new hiring.
They could consider what kind of hiring they might need in the next three to six months, and then plan whether they need to apply for a sponsor licence, for example.

The immigration regime is complex. And while it’s often easier for larger businesses to navigate, how can smaller businesses and individuals understand their options?

It can seem very confusing and daunting. Of course, our professionals, such as myself, at Fragomen are specialised in assisting our clients with applying for a sponsor licence or advising how they can maintain it once they’ve got it. We can also advise on the eligibility of a candidate to be sponsored in the UK, as well as to explain the application process and really support an individual from end to end through their move to the UK or through joining a new employer.

We take all the guesswork and all of the uncertainty out of the process, and we can ensure that the best decisions are being made for the business and for the individual.

But if a business isn’t able to or prepared to instruct a professional services provider, there is lots of information that’s out there freely available, starting with the government website and guidance. But there are also other organisations that support small businesses and will provide lots of information for free. For example, Coadec, which stands for the Coalition for a Digital Economy, is a not-for-profit organisation that campaigns for policies to support digital start-ups in the UK. We recently partnered with them to create an immigration guide specifically focused on those in the tech sector. It provides an introduction to the main visa categories that may be relevant to those in the tech sector. That’s freely available, both on the Coadec website as well as the Fragomen website so I would definitely direct people there in the first instance.

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