The requirement, since 1 January 2021, for all EU nationals coming into the UK for work to have a visa that permits work has put a renewed emphasis on immigration for companies that frequently recruit from the EU or have offices in the EU.
The gaming industry is a competitive market and the ability of studios and other businesses to continue to secure a highly skilled and talented team (regardless of nationality or location) remains key. With a growing sector that has experienced a limited slowdown in recruitment despite the current pandemic, it is important to understand the new rules and changes that will impact future recruitment.
Despite the various hurdles to recruit non-UK nationals or transfer employees from EU offices following the end of the Brexit transition period, the "new" immigration system has made changes that should help businesses. Some of the key changes have been to the Skilled Worker visa route, previously known as Tier 2 General and regularly used to secure visas for non-UK hires within gaming. These include the following:
- Lowering the skills threshold from degree level to A-levels or the vocational equivalent, which will allow sponsorship of a wider range of roles by companies.
- Lowering the salary threshold from £30,000 to £25,600, with a possibility to secure visas for even lower salaries (of at least £20,480) if the individual can obtain additional points – for example where there is a 'shortage occupation' role. Helpfully the list of shortage occupations includes roles of relevance to the games sector such as games programmers, software engineers and graphic designers.
- Removing the 'resident labour market' test, where sponsors previously had to conduct a rigid advertising process for 28 days. This significantly reduces the processing times for visa applications, although it remains crucial for the company to still evidence there was a genuine vacancy.
- Suspending the cap on the Skilled Worker visa category has been and simplifying the process of securing a certificate for initial visas from the outside the UK – certificate requests can be made at any time and processed within 24 hours.
- Ending the "cooling off period" of 12 months and the limit of six years on the Skilled Person visa category, offering a flexibility for both companies and individuals.
- Allowing many visa applications which previously had to be made outside the UK to be completed in the UK, to avoid any disruption to the business.
Visa sponsorship has increased in relevance, and therefore cost, for sectors needing to maintain access to a broader talent pool following the end of free movement between the UK and the EU. To reflect this, companies should look carefully at their employment contracts and broader global mobility strategy.
Other changes to the immigration system around the increased ability for sponsored employees to switch between immigration categories may also cause employers some concerns in relation to employee retention, with the potential for more instance of employees moving between companies. We expect to see an increased use of repayment clauses, which require sponsored employees to repay certain costs incurred by the employer in securing their visa (and possibly those of the employee's family as well) if the employee were to leave within a certain timeframe. These provisions need to be carefully drafted and the position should be explained to the individual to help avoid it being a cause for acrimony if this is raised well into the sponsorship and visa process, or where they hadn’t spotted the clause set out within their employment contract.
Focus on compliance
Our prediction is that with the greater flexibility offered under the new system, there will be even greater scrutiny on compliance and record-keeping for sponsors. This could include increased Home Office audits.
One key compliance area is 'right to work' checks and in relation to current EU nationals. Companies need to guide employees on the necessary steps for securing their status under the EU Settlement Scheme by 30 June 2021. At the moment the guidance does not require retrospective right to work checks for current EU employees as their passports will remain sufficient. Unfortunately though there is no guidance from the government on how employers are to check whether their EU employees have completed the necessary steps by the end of June 2021. We hope that further details will be published in the coming months.
Various concessions were also introduced during the pandemic, such as remote right to work checks. It is important to ensure records are updated once those temporary measures come to an end.