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Immigration programmes for low-skilled labour: alternatives to freedom of movement

08 September 2016

The UK relies on EU migrants for low-skilled labour. When the current immigration system was introduced in 2008, Tier 3 of the UK Points-Based System was earmarked for low-skilled immigration routes.


The UK relies on EU migrants for low-skilled labour. When the current immigration system was introduced in 2008, Tier 3 of the UK Points-Based System was earmarked for low-skilled immigration routes. However, the Home Office decided not to make Tier 3 operational, reasoning that the UK’s low-skilled labour needs would be met by EU migrants exercising freedom of movement rights. The recent vote to leave the EU raises the question of how the UK will deal with low-skilled immigration. This article summarises immigration programmes for low-skilled labour in other countries with relatively high GDPs, which could inform a post-Brexit model for the UK.

Unlike the EU which allows free movement from other EU and EEA countries, the countries covered below do not allow the free movement of immigrants. While Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Canada, the US and the UAE have specific visa categories for low-skilled and unskilled workers, Australia does not have a designated visa category for low-skilled workers. Instead, Australia has certain visa categories that low-skilled workers can broadly be classified under, such as the working-holiday visa. Korea and Japan have adopted similar programmes for low-skilled workers. Japan’s system is the most restrictive of the countries discussed in this article.

Any future low-skilled worker immigration route to the UK is likely to share some characteristics with the routes in place in other countries. Sir David Metcalf, Chair of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), recently told the Telegraph that the MAC has been thinking about a UK scheme for low-skilled migrants similar to the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Scheme (SAWS) that was in place for Bulgarian and Romanian workers before they gained full access to the UK labour market in January 2014. The SAWS shares several characteristics with other countries’ low-skilled immigration routes.


Low-skilled workers have to obtain a work permit to work in Singapore. The permit lasts for up to two years, and may be renewed. There are several mechanisms in place to ensure the workers are repatriated to their home countries and are only in Singapore on a temporary basis.

Once a work permit visa is obtained, it will only be valid for the specific occupation, the employer and the specified worker for the stated period of issue.

Low-skilled migrant workers do not enjoy the same freedoms and protections as highly-skilled workers. They may not bring their immediate family and may not marry Singaporeans. Employers who employ domestic helpers are required to pay a security bond to guarantee that the immigrant workers will leave Singapore.

Singapore also imposes a quota and levy on employers who employ mid-skilled foreign workers in some sectors to regulate the number of foreign workers.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong has two categories of visas for low-skilled workers, one for domestic helpers and one for workers at the technician level or below. Both categories allow the workers only to remain in Hong Kong on a temporary basis and impose restrictions on them.

Workers at the technician level or below enter Hong Kong under the Supplementary Labour Scheme. Employers have to pay a levy for each worker. Imported workers under this scheme must remain under the direct employment of the same employer for the specified job and in the specific workplace and cannot be contracted out to other companies or sub-contractors.

Low-skilled workers are not eligible to bring their dependants to Hong Kong or to settle in Hong Kong.


Australian visa categories that allow temporary low-skilled or unskilled work include the working holiday visa and programmes to encourage migrants to work in remote areas.

Australia has a visa category for high-skilled workers but there is no visa for low-skilled migrant workers. Instead, Australia’s immigration policy offers the Seasonal Worker Programme and the labour agreements scheme, which is designed to address the labour shortages in remote areas. Workers under the Seasonal Worker Programme are not allowed to bring their dependants.
These visa routes are often bypassed through use of working-holiday visas and student visas, which allow low-skilled temporary migrant workers to work. The Seasonal Worker Programme and the labour agreements scheme are more heavily regulated in that employers have to show that the resident labour market test has been met.
Low-skilled positions may also be filled by New Zealand citizens who can live and work indefinitely in Australia without meeting any of the skilled migrant requirements.

New Zealand

New Zealand has a scheme similar to Australia for specific industries. Additionally, there are two visa categories for low-skilled workers that last for a considerable period of time.

New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme and Supplementary Seasonal Employment Scheme facilitate the temporary entry of additional workers in the horticulture and viticulture industries.
New Zealand also has a broad “essential skills work visa category” that accounts for different skill levels. Individuals who have been offered a full-time job and have the necessary qualifications and experience are able to apply for a temporary visa. These visas may last up to three years and may be extended, depending on the location of the job and whether the employer is an accredited labour hire company.
Low-skilled positions may also be filled by Australian citizens who can live and work indefinitely in New Zealand without meeting any of the skilled migrant requirements


Low-skilled migrant workers are able to apply under a specific visa category which allows temporary entry into Canada. Each province and territory has its own immigration programme in place.

Canada has a low-skilled occupations visa category for applicants who hold a high school diploma or two years of job-specific training. They can stay and work in Canada for six months to two years. A work permit under this category does not allow the applicant to live in Canada permanently. Dependants have to separately apply for temporary residence.

Each province and territory in Canada has its own routes and criteria for their Provincial Nominee Programme (PNP) which is an economic immigration programme tailored to the labour needs in each province. Some PNPs offer permanent residency for workers in semi-skilled professions after they have gained work experience in Canada.


There are two designated visa categories for low-skilled foreign workers, the EB visa and H-2 visa categories. The EB visa is difficult to obtain but can lead to permanent status. H-2 visas do not lead to permanent status.

Workers who apply for occupations that require less than two years’ training experience are considered unskilled. There are a limited number of EB-3 visas allocated to unskilled workers each year which allow the migrant to bring their dependants and ultimately apply for permanent residency. Employers have to carry out the resident labour market test. This visa category tends to be oversubscribed and the waiting period often runs to many years.

Other visa categories for unskilled workers are the H-2A seasonal work visa and the H-2B work visa which allow US employers to hire foreign workers to work in agriculture and non-agricultural positions respectively. These visas are temporary and the number of H-2B visas issued each year is capped at 66,000.


There is no visa category for low-skilled foreign workers. Instead, Japan has a training programme which permits the “trainee” to remain in Japan for a total period of four years. Japan’s immigration laws are relatively restrictive on low-skilled workers.

Japanese immigration law generally only permits the entry of highly-skilled workers. Low-skilled or unskilled foreign workers have to apply through the Technical Internship Training Program to enter Japan under a one-year trainee visa. They must be reclassified as a technical intern to extend their stay for another three years.

There are limitations on obtaining a position in the trainee programme. The individual has to belong to an organisation outside of Japan that sends the applicant to a Japanese organisation.


Korea has an Employment Permit System which encompasses two types of visas for low-skilled workers.

Under the Employment Permit System (EPS), the employment of foreign workers is covered by a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) negotiated with each relevant country. Korea has signed MOUs with 15 countries.

The EPS encompasses two types of employment visa, the E-9 and the H-2 visas. The E-9 visa is for low-skilled foreigners and restricted to an annual quota. The visa allows foreigners to work up to four years and ten months in certain industries. The H-2 visa is a preferential employment visa for ethnic Koreans living in other countries.

The EPS is managed by public authorities but employers choose their workers. Korea’s “guest worker programme” is premised on the idea that low-skilled foreign workers will only stay in the country temporarily.


Visas for low-skilled foreign workers must be sponsored by a person or a business in the UAE. These visas are popular, with most workers paying for sponsorship in order to access a better life outside of their home countries.

In order to help ensure that workers leave thecountry, the visas issued are temporary, and dependants are not able to reside with them in the UAE.


The review of immigration routes available to low-skilled migrant workers in various countries reveals a few notable trends. Low-skilled worker routes tend to be temporary, without the opportunity for settlement that more highly skilled migrant workers often enjoy. Low-skilled workers tend not to be able to bring their family members with them to their host countries. Low-skilled worker schemes often rely on guarantees from employers, sometimes in the form of a monetary bond, that their employees will leave the host country upon termination of their contracts. Sometimes employers must apply for Government approval in order to hire low-skilled migrants. Caps or quotas limiting the number of low-skilled migrants are another feature of some low-skilled worker schemes. It is likely that the UK will develop a programme for low-skilled migrant workers featuring some or all of these features.

The SAWS, which Sir David Metcalf indicated could serve as a framework for a future low-skilled migrant worker route to the UK, included features common to other countries’ low-skilled schemes. The SAWS was a temporary work scheme, allowing work for 6 months at a time. Family members who were European nationals could join SAWS workers in the UK, but other family members needed visas in their own right. SAWS employers were pre-approved by SAWS scheme ‘operators’ who were under contract with the Home Office, and the SAWS scheme was capped at 21,250 places per year. Sir David stated that programmes similar to SAWS could be put in place for the retail, construction and food processing industries. Whether all the features of the SAWS will be included in future programmes, or other features such as employers providing monetary bonds will be incorporated, remains to be seen.

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