APPG for Textiles and Fashion Meeting on Visas and immigration in the UK garment-manufacturing sector

APPG for Textiles and Fashion Meeting on Visas and immigration in the UK garment-manufacturing sector

Manufacturers, machinists, academics and policy makers gathered on Monday 8th of July to discuss visas and employment for the UK garment manufacturing industry. Organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Textiles and Fashion—to which Fashion Roundtable provide the secretariat—the meeting aimed to bring forth the concerns of manufacturers across the UK about hiring skilled labour after Brexit. Chaired by Tamara Cincik, speakers were:

  • Minister Caroline Nokes, MP for Romsey and Southampton North and Minister of State for Immigration,

  • Lord Young of Norwood Green,

  • Jenny Holloway, CEO of Fashion Capital,

  • Professor Jonathan Portes, Associate Fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe,

  • Peter Gambrill, Economist for the Migration Advisory Committee,

  • Kate Hills, Founder of Make it British

  • Jack Tindale, Policy Manager for Design & Innovation at Policy Connect.

The garment-manufacturing sector is in a unique position: according to Kate Hills, it is the fastest growing manufacturing industry and adds £9bn GVA to the country’s economy. But for a combination of reasons, its value is not recognised and thus, growth is not encouraged or supported by policy. “It makes £9bn but it could double that amount with the right support,” said Kate Hills.

Stakeholders and manufacturers identified a lack of skilled labour as the most significant factor impeding growth, which is motivated by a shift in sourcing practices from many retailers, who are now looking at lean and fast production that can be sourced locally. Encouraging growth in the garment-manufacturing sector has the potential to address a number of market failures: unemployment, lack of training and education, development of local economies, and exploitation that occurs with overproduction and buying from overseas factories. 

According to a survey released by Fashion Roundtable, three quarters of respondents had vacancies for machinists. And almost 90% of respondents do not think that, currently, there are sufficient skills in the UK to fill these vacancies. Already the majority of machinists employed are EEA citizens, who arrive in the UK already with the necessary skill set for the role. Brexit and the post-Brexit immigration system is a threat to the industry, as it has the potential to limit the supply of skilled workforce.

Although education and training do play a role, attendees shared that successful engagement with the local population have been rare, because there is resistance from local councils and colleges to implement training schemes. They felt that there is a prejudice against the work of machinists. Many found that recent graduates prefer more glamorous roles, such as designers, but they lack the skills and knowledge to assemble a garment of their own design. Furthermore, changes in the education system take time to bear results – and given the rising demand for local production, it would be a missed opportunity to wait for the next generation to be trained.

If government pursues restrictive immigration policies and the path for machinists to enter the UK becomes reduced, factories have and incentive to relocate, potentially to Ireland, which would retain EU freedom of movement. Or Scotland should the SNP win an independence vote post Brexit, where the majority of the population voted to Remain in 2016. As well as a loss for the economy, it would mean a decrease in taxes paid by businesses.

Hearing from Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes MP, and listening to the packed room of voices from the industry, was a necessary first step in advocating clearly that fashion workers need to be added to the Shortage Occupation Visa List (SOL). There are approximately 5 types of engineers on the list, architects are on the list—who are all important but they make a fraction of the £32.3bn which fashion makes for the UK economy. The UK fashion manufacturing industry is a fantastic export success story for the UK. However, it is apparent from today's discussions that the sector's growth is held back by the need to hire more talent, and that there is a lack of skilled talent in the UK to satisfy this demand. We would need to hire talent from outside of the UK if we are to turn the factories which are already at production capacity into ones that have the capability to produce thousands more garments—and thus raise contributions to the UK economy. 

The key recommendations that were made in the meeting were :

  • A re-evaluation of how skill is measured,

  • Machinists to be added to the Shortage Occupation Visa List (SOL),

  • Fashion workers are added to Visa quotas when freedom of movement for EU nationals ends

  • A detailed risk assessment carried out of EU nationals and non EU Nationals working in garment factories.

Following our initial meeting, we will now put the recommendations forward to a Government through a Petition letter and continue to work closely with all stakeholder parties involved. The garment manufacturing sector holds potential for growth and prosperity, and it is essential that government understands the needs and conditions of the industry to encourage this growth. As a highly technical industry, there is also scope for innovation and development, which is the driving force for the Industrial Strategy, which aims to boost productivity.

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