In a recent statement, Sir Elton John hit hard against the government for its lack of provisions for the entertainment industry with regards to travel restrictions surrounding Brexit, stating: “I’m livid about what the government did when Brexit happened. They made no provision for the entertainment business, and not just for musicians, actors and film directors, but for the crews, the dancers, the people who earn a living by going to Europe.”
Sir Elton hammered home the idea that the government had thrown away the entertainment industry, instead choosing to focus on areas like fishing: “The fishing industry – which they still f... up – brings in £1.4 billion. And I am all for the fishermen, but we’re talking about more than £100 billion of difference here, and we weren’t even thought about! ‘Oh well, the arts: they don’t matter.’” His attack comes amidst the context of the government’s proposal to cut Arts funding in universities by 50%, a decision that will risk the loss of the UK’s position as a cultural leader within Europe, Contemporary Visual Arts Network claimed.
Though his frustration also comes from a personal perspective of not being able to tour abroad as easily, his main concern is for the smaller artists who don’t have the same level of wealth or time to fill out the necessary forms to travel as a business to Europe: “To young people just starting a career, it’s crucifying.” The sentiment is particularly stated by voices outside of Britain, who say that it is likely that the British pop industry will fade amidst rising pressures from emerging German and French pop scenes.
It isn’t just Sir Elton that has hit back at the government for its lack of care for the entertainment industry, with Cameron Mackintosh, whose career achievements include being the producer of the two longest-running musicals in West End history, also expressing anger and concern at the survivability of the arts as a whole.
Last December, Mackintosh commented that “The sudden volte-face by the Government in deciding to immediately put London into Tier 3 is devastating for both the theatre and the economy.” At the same time, Bernard Donoghue, the director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, stated that it was “Utter madness that... saunas and steam rooms can remain open but the National Gallery can’t”, demonstrating a clear sentiment throughout the industry of unfair treatment.
More recently, Andrew Lloyd Webber hit out against the restrictions that the industry was facing, claiming in June that “We are going to open, come hell or high water,” for the June 25th previews of his latest musical ‘Cinderella’. Adding “If the government ignore their own science, we have the mother of all legal cases against them. If Cinderella couldn’t open, we’d go, ‘Look, either we go to law about it or you’ll have to compensate us”’ after claiming that there is clear science that shows theatres are entirely safe and do not promote the transmission of the virus. Though Lloyd Webber didn’t end up opening on June 25th, and nor did he open for his premiere on July 19th after members of the cast were forced to self isolate. He claimed that it was due to “the impossible conditions created by the blunt instrument that is the government’s isolation guidance”.
Lloyd Webber also stated that they had been “forced into a devastating decision which will affect the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of people and disappoint the thousands who have booked to see the show”, a decision that so many have been forced into taking.
Whilst it may not be everybody’s first industry to save, the noticeable lack of consideration to an economy that is worth over £111 billion is striking, particularly as the UK is one of the largest exporters of entertainment in Europe, when it comes to music, with approximately 20 times the number of British artists touring in France than there are French artists touring in Britain.
However, for the same reasons that British artists are finding it difficult to travel abroad, Europeans are also finding it just as difficult to get into the UK with the new restrictions on travel being implemented. One of France’s largest independent music managing companies claimed that the new travel obstacles have caused an administrative headache for many in the industry, and “in some cases, it could even lead to waiving dates in the UK”, simply because of the lack of economic feasibility when paperwork costs are considered.
That said, to claim that this is an issue felt by the entertainment industry alone would be a gross understatement and too narrow in focus. According to the accountancy firm KPMG, the number of available workers in the UK dropped the sharpest it has since 1997, with recruitment firms finding shortfalls in areas such as transport and logistics, hospitality, manufacturing and construction. Whilst there is a broad range of skills that are currently lacking in the workforce, the labour shortages are also spreading to typically higher-paying sectors such as finance, IT, accounting and engineering as well, leaving many businesses scrambling for these specialised roles.
The Jobs website, which is tracked by government officials for warning signs from the labour market, found that the number of job searches from Western Europe and Northern America halved - a drop in roughly 250,000 searches - since February 2020, just before the pandemic spread to the UK. The decline was being led by lack of overseas interest in what are typically lower-paid service-led sectors, despite some towns and cities having certain job seekers looking to fill 20 positions each, indicating that there is no distinct shortage of jobs that cause the lower search numbers.
Alongside the lack of overseas interest in British jobs, businesses have been attempting to hire at one of the highest rates in recent years, according to a poll from British Chambers of Commerce of 5,700 companies, 52% said they tried to hire staff over the three months leading up to June. The study also showed that 70% of businesses that had tried to hire staff in that period had struggled to do so, and the sectors with the biggest problems recruiting workers were construction, hotels and catering, and manufacturing.
Though it might not all be because of Brexit alone; the rush to re-open after pandemic restrictions has led to clear bottlenecks for employment. Employers are also finding added complications on top of this bottleneck, as fewer EU workers have been travelling to Britain because of the pandemic border controls alongside the government’s post-Brexit immigration rules. Up to 1.3 million non-UK workers are believed to have left the country during the pandemic, with few having returned to date. With the opening up of the UK’s economy and a large drive from employers to fill their gaps, whilst not having an equivalent return of labour forces, the shortage was inevitable, but can anything be done about it?
Whilst it is true that the pandemic has heightened the issues surrounding Brexit and labour movement, it might be unfair to suggest that the current issues are solely a short-term problem that will smooth out when the pandemic is over, whatever that may be. There is still the clear potential that we will be unable to recover similar numbers of foreign workers which we saw before the pandemic. This is due to the fundamental issues that have led to this labour shortage for employers: skills shortages, both high and low-paid, that have existed in Britain long before the pandemic or Brexit.
In an attempt to meet the needs of businesses across the country, business leaders have said easing post-Brexit immigration rules could help address shortages in the short term, but also called for further investment in skills and training from the government to increase the numbers of domestic candidates. “We need action from businesses and government to re-skill and up-skill furloughed and prospective workers now more than ever, as the increasing skills gap in the workforce has the potential to slow the UK’s economic recovery,” said Claire Warnes, head of education, skills and productivity at KPMG UK.
However, even in sectors that have seen extensions and the easing of restrictions to working visas have found a sharp decrease in international interest. One example is the horticulture sector, specifically when focussing on seasonal fruit pickings, a role that was traditionally undertaken by international seasonal workers. Here, despite the government’s decision to extend the Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) scheme to allow a further 30,000 visas for temporary farmworkers to enter the UK for up to six months, there’s still not enough workers to fill the 70,000-80,000 picking and packing roles that exist this year in the horticultural sector.
Stephen Taylor of Winterwood Farms Ltd claimed that “95% of all fruit and produce picked and packaged in this country is done by eastern Europeans. From the end of June, people who have not got pre-settled status, at least, can’t work.” The shortages are leading seasonal growers to be at risk of having their crops rot due to the inability to pick them all.
The problem circles back to the same issues that are being faced by the entertainment industry; cost. Even with the temporary visa, unless the worker already has settled or pre-settled status and are living in the UK, they would need to pay £244 and demonstrate they have savings of at least £1,270 before even taking into account travel costs to work.
On top of this, there are hidden costs for seasonal labourers, such as not being able to access public funds, all of which contributes to making the UK unattractive as a foreign workplace.
Why don’t British workers look to fill the gaps? Employment experts believe that the reputation of certain sectors for having traditionally low paying positions and poor working conditions surrounding Covid-19 is also having a marked impact in low employment rates. After a year of furlough and people spending more of their daily lives at home with their loved ones and away from the past normality of high-stress environments, fewer workers are returning to their old employers in hopes of finding a new, more agreeable place to work. If this trend is sustained, and with the UK’s traditional base of foreign workers for these sectors, the country could see a push for employers to increase wages, which could potentially lead to a rise in inflation from companies who are looking to accommodate the higher wage bills with a rise in prices.
However, there is debate about whether bottleneck pressures as the economy reopens from lockdown will translate into a permanently tighter jobs market. Neil Carberry, the chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), said: “The jobs market is improving at the fastest pace we have ever seen, but it is still an unpredictable time. We can’t yet tell how much the ending of furlough and greater candidate confidence will help to meet this rising demand for staff.”
Carberry’s comment about the uncertainty of furlough statistics and how this is set to affect the country’s labour statistics has heavyweight behind it. Currently, over 1.5 million workers throughout the country are furloughed, a significant drop from the initial 9 million at the start of the scheme, with the pandemic restrictions still limiting a full return to work. However, the scheme is set to be ended in September, a fact that will see many out of a job as unemployment figures are set to rise to 5.5% from the current the 1.6 million people (4.7%). Though this prediction may not consider the fact that large portions of furloughed staff are currently unable to work another job under the threat of their current position no longer providing furlough for them, leading to the potential that there is a large portion of the workforce who are ‘locked up’ in their current positions, whereas they could find employment elsewhere if they didn’t lose current furlough benefits.
If there is any take-home message from the UK’s labour shortage, it is that for years we have had a shortage of skills within our population along with a clear lack of willingness of many to work in certain sectors, making it impossible to be self-sufficient when it comes to filling jobs. One cause for Britons’ cultural unwillingness to work in low paid sectors, particularly manual labour sectors like seasonal fruit picking, is due to our over appreciation for intellectual labour at the expense of other areas. Over the past 20 years, successive British governments have focussed on the primacy of a university degree compared to apprenticeships or other similar forms of education. Following from this, a culture has emerged which often rejects the merits of manual labour, causing us to heavily rely on international workers under the presumption that sudden unavailability of that international workforce simply wouldn’t happen.
There is a chance now, however, to change this for years to come with a revitalised investment in up-skilling our labour force, both high and low-paid, due to the increased demand with European workers gone, and improving working conditions and pay for those in lower sector jobs. Without this investment, it is a likely possibility that the employment bottleneck will remain a long-standing condition of British business character, with companies being starved of the skills and labour force that they need to operate and survive.