The government wants to “flush out” businesses that are not doing enough to try and hire British workers before recruiting foreign staff, interior minister Amber Rudd said on Wednesday.
The comment follows Rudd’s announcement to the ruling Conservative Party’s conference on Tuesday that she would launch a review into whether recruiting foreign workers should be made harder, an idea condemned by employer groups.
Concerns over immigration were a key factor in Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in a June referendum, and the new government led by Prime Minister Theresa May has been trying to signal tough action ahead to bring down migrant numbers.
Interviewed on BBC radio early on Wednesday, Rudd was asked to respond to criticism from Adam Marshall, acting head of the British Chambers of Commerce, who said businesses were already making efforts to hire locally and train the local workforce.
“He may know businesses that take that very positive approach and we welcome it, but I fear there may be some who aren’t quite as constructive and they’re the ones we want to flush out here,” Rudd said.
In her conference speech, Rudd said that an existing test companies have to take before recruiting from abroad had become a “tick box exercise” and should potentially be tightened in various ways.
“The test should ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do,” she said.
One of the most controversial aspects of Rudd’s proposals is the idea of companies being compelled to publish the proportion of their workforce that is international.
“I think a lot of businesses would be saddened if they felt that having a global workforce was somehow seen as a badge of shame,” said Marshall of the British Chambers of Commerce.
Political opponents of the Conservative government denounced both the tone and the content of Rudd’s announcements.
“The tone of the Conservative conference has become increasingly xenophobic,” said Andy Burnham, who leads the main opposition Labour Party’s policy on immigration and other areas that fall in Rudd’s remit.
“The idea of British companies producing lists of foreign workers runs counter to everything that this country has ever stood for. It would be divisive, discriminatory and risks creating real hostility in workplaces and communities.”
Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party and of Scotland’s devolved government, said on Twitter that “we seem to have woken up with a UKIP government”, referring to the anti-immigration UK Independence Party.
“Depressing doesn’t even begin to cover it,” Sturgeon said.