Report overview
What immigration options are there currently for the retail sector?

How could immigration reform assist the retail sector?

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has highlighted that there are currently 100,000 job vacancies in the retail sector. There are particular shortages for heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers, warehouse staff and hospitality workers. The BRC argues that a more flexible immigration system could help in addressing the sector's labour needs. This article looks at some of the possible options and areas for reform.

Report overview

The BRC Retail Jobs Report for the second quarter of 2022, released on 14 June 2022, notes that although retail sector employers increased pay at 5.5% in 2021 (double the national average of 2.7% in other sectors) and continue to invest in their workforce, vacancies in the sector (and across all sectors) are significantly above pre-pandemic levels and rising. The reasons for this include an increase in the inactivity rate in the United Kingdom and workers taking early retirement, as well as European Economic Area (EEA) national workers leaving the United Kingdom and not returning.

The report observes that the industry aims to offer more highly skilled, productive and better-paid work. It suggests that a more flexible and demand-led immigration system and expanding the scope of the apprenticeship levy may assist in meeting these goals.

What immigration options are there currently for the retail sector?

Skilled Worker route
The Skilled Worker route is the United Kingdom's main sponsored work category. Under the post-Brexit immigration system, the minimum skill level for the Skilled Worker route was set at level 3 on the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF), which is equivalent to A-level. Under the previous Tier 2 (General) route, the requirement was RQF level 6, equivalent to bachelor degree level. The main general salary threshold was also dropped from £30,000 to £25,600.

These changes mean that more occupations are eligible for sponsorship than previously. Some of the currently eligible occupations applicable to the retail sector include:

  • various management level roles, such as retail store and hospitality managers;
  • IT-related roles;
  • merchandisers and window dressers;
  • various sales and business development roles;
  • customer service managers and supervisors;
  • product, clothing and related designers;
  • buyers and procurement officers;
  • transport and distribution clerks and assistants;
  • sales administrators;
  • various roles relating to food preparation; and
  • specialist retail roles, such as in hairdressing and floristry.

EU Settlement Scheme
The retail sector was particularly affected both by the pandemic and by Brexit, with workers from the EEA leaving the United Kingdom.

Employers should ensure they are aware of the potential for some EEA nationals to return to the United Kingdom under the EU Settlement Scheme, which is still open for late applications. For example, EEA nationals who previously lived in the United Kingdom for a continuous period of five years or more may be eligible to make a late application under the scheme provided no more than five years has passed since they last left the United Kingdom. They should also be alive to the possibility of a potential recruit being eligible to come to the United Kingdom as a joining family member – for example, if they have a partner who holds status or is eligible to apply under the scheme.

Immigration applications are currently being processed with delays (for further details please see "Update on UK immigration processing delays"). Employers should therefore keep abreast of updated processing times and aim to plan applications as far as possible ahead of proposed start dates.

How could immigration reform assist the retail sector?

There are a number of possibilities that may prove helpful:

  • greater stakeholder engagement, inter-departmental coordination within the government and more regular reviews by the Migration Advisory Committee to understand and address sectoral and broader labour market challenges in the wake of Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine;
  • reform of the sponsorship system under the Points-Based Immigration System Sponsorship Roadmap (for further details please see "Home Office releases points-based immigration system sponsorship roadmap");
  • future negotiation of reciprocal youth mobility scheme arrangements with further EEA countries (currently only Iceland participates), or other countries;
  • additional provisions in the Skilled Worker route or temporary work routes to address skills shortages;
  • creation of unsponsored or otherwise more flexible routes that enable participants to work without requiring a sponsor and/or to change employers with no or minimal cost or administration (this may be particularly helpful for logistics workers, including HGV drivers); and
  • streamlining application processes including through pursuing a digitalisation agenda (for further details please see "Digitalisation trends in immigration").

The considerations and options for individual businesses will vary according to the nature and duration of the roles that need to be filled.

For further information on this topic please contact Supinder Singh Sian, Sam Koppel, Tom McEvoy or Kathryn Denyer at Lewis Silkin by telephone (+44 20 7074 8000‚Äč) or email ([email protected], [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected]). The Lewis Silkin website can be accessed at