British Hospitality Association chief executive Ufi Ibrahim tells James Stagg about her manifesto for a better Brexit
It is days before Christmas when we meet, but Ufi Ibrahim couldn't be described as being in a party mood. Last year pretty much everything was thrown at hospitality operators, with the National Living Wage, impending business rates hike and the apprenticeship levy all threatening to bombard the balance sheets. If that wasn't enough to dampen any Christmas cheer, the looming triggering of Article 50 and impending Brexit has forced the industry to consider a very real staffing crisis if the flow of migrant labour is cut off or even slowed.
It has meant a busy period for the British Hospitality Association (BHA) chief executive, who has appeared across multiple media outlets, outlining the case for a reasonable approach to curbs on migration. The question is: is anyone listening?
Hospitality may employ some 4.5 million people in the UK, but as Ibrahim points out, it still struggles to gain the recognition and political support afforded to industries such as automotive and construction.
"There is a bit of irony in this whole thing," Ibrahim says. "In our industry most of our businesses are owned by British nationals. These are home-grown, home-managed, home- operated businesses. I think it's really misunderstood and mistreated by the government.
"The attention is on companies like Nissan and other large businesses who may employ 10,000 people on one site, versus our industry that employs 4.5 million across the country.
"Government seems to be tripping over itself to keep the banks in the UK, to keep the automotive industry in the UK. The impact they have on employment isn't comparable. So, for us, there is a real deep-set frustration."
Last year Ibrahim described Brexit as having the potential to push the industry to the cliff edge, but was heartened to hear Prime Minister Theresa May "answering our call word for word" when she addressed the CBI conference in November, telling delegates: "People don't want a cliff-edge; they want to know with some certainty how things are going to go."
And certainty is absolutely what the hospitality industry is seeking too. The main thrust of that centres around migration. With 700,000 EU workers in the UK hospitality industry, according to estimates from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, Ibrahim's focus is to ensure there is a tapered approach to any controls, rather than turning the tap off overnight. With that in mind, the BHA is working on a 10-year plan to present to government, outlining how the industry can help reduce migration.
As hospitality is such a labour-intensive business, the industry has more to lose than most, and Ibrahim is concerned by talk of radically slashing net migration numbers without serious consideration given to its effect. With May committed to reducing net migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands, the implications for hospitality could be severe. Moreover, hospitality could be hit particularly hard due to the classification of many of the roles undertaken by migrants.
Ibrahim explains: "Politicians across all parties have been talking about ensuring that skills do not suffer, that there is a facility to ensure that skilled talent does continue to enjoy access to the UK. That would be, for example, through a work permit scheme. But nobody is talking about labour shortages, they're all talking about skills shortages."
Ibrahim adds that according to the Migration Observatory, 96% of hospitality's EU workforce in the UK would be ineligible for a work permit under the current scheme. This would clearly present a significant short to medium term challenge for the industry, which is why the BHA is so keen to be part of the conversation when it comes to establishing how Brexit is to be managed. One problem for the organisation is that there isn't a clear figure on the exact number of EU workers in the UK hospitality industry. It believes the Migration Observatory figures of 15% of the total 4.5 million workforce to be conservative at best, so has commissioned KMPG to come up with a more accurate figure by early February.
"For us it's critical to make sure that government have all the evidence that's needed so that they understand the potential implications of their decisions and also that we can really inform and shape what that period looks like," Ibrahim explains.
Worst case scenario
"We are preparing for that worst-case scenario and fighting to ensure we work back from that towards a position which will have no serious impact on our industry short term. In the long-term approach we're calling for a 10-year plan because it will take a long time."
It means the BHA - and industry as a whole - will need to redouble efforts to attract UK nationals to an industry that might be accused of having an image problem, despite ongoing efforts from a number of organisations.
"We'll have to go back to 13-14 year olds - the work experience piece - to introduce the industry as a career option," Ibrahim adds. "We need to step up campaigns like the Big Hospitality Conversation and really help Springboard to go to all schools, as well as ramping up other campaigns too. That will take a considerable amount of time."
Even if there is some political agreement for a tapered approach to migration, the industry's hand may be forced by the Brexit effect discouraging workers from the EU considering making a move to these shores. Not only has the weaker pound made it less financially attractive, but the lack of certainty and perception that the country is less welcoming to foreigners has surely put off some employees.
"We are getting anecdotal evidence that it's getting that little bit harder to attract people," Ibrahim confirms. "The devaluation of the pound and financial attractiveness will have had an effect, but also the uncertainty - not sure how long I'll be able to stay if I do change my life and come to the UK. The third issue is fear of xenophobia. It's very concerning.
"Ultimately our industry is the face of the UK. We represent Britain. And we serve all of those people who come to visit as well as our own populace. To have our own people feeling unwelcome isn't a great space to be in for an industry that is built on the premise of taking care of people."
The citizenship question
For those already employing EU workers in the UK, Ibrahim suggests they encourage members of staff to consider British citizenship. It's certainly an option for those committed to their roles and who are keen to stay, though one that might seem extreme to some European citizens used to the freedom of the continent.
"From the BHA standpoint, we are first and foremost calling on the government to ensure that those EU workers who we currently have in the UK will be given the option to be able to stay, regardless of whether they've been here two years or two months," Ibrahim says.
Given the scenario that hospitality will be losing the ability to access free movement of labour, Ibrahim believes the best outcome would be one in which the industry can work with the government towards a long term plan to transform the perception of the industry as a career opportunity for British nationals. That said, she still believes even that may not be enough and that the industry will require access to some level of labour from the EU.
Among the proposals being made by the BHA is the extension of the Youth Mobility Scheme (which currently allows those aged 18-30 from countries including Australia, Canada and Japan to work in the UK for two years) to EU member states. Ibrahim also suggests she may follow the lead of Mayor Sadiq Khan who is pushing for a London visa, whereby the city could offer its own work permits. Instead, she says there could be industry specific permits, with a special quota for hospitality. All of this will take time, which is why Ibrahim keeps repeating the mantra that there must be a tapered 10-year plan.
"For every business we need certainty to replace uncertainty," she adds. "The big concern is the length of time that it's going to take to do the negotiations and the fact that the government doesn't have the information, the evidence base or even the negotiators. They have said two years, others are saying it will take seven minimum. The sooner everything is settled the better."
If this all sounds like a serious headache for hospitality, Ibrahim is keen to stress there are reasons to be cheerful, the principle being that it gives the industry the opportunity to really demonstrate to government its value to the economy and the country, and get a seat at the table when important decision are made.
"The thing about change is that there are always winners and losers," she says. "Right now we have a big opportunity to escalate the attention given to our industry as being one of the most important in the UK.
"As the banks and other businesses are threatening to leave there is a huge opportunity to say we are the leading industry in the UK and it's about time we were invested in by government. It's about time to embrace us as being the heroes and champions that we really are for UK plc."
Industry must work to change perceptions
A step change is required in the way hospitality is treated in schools and perceived across the country if it is to attract the workforce of the future, Ibrahim believes.
She rejects the assertion that the industry is too reliant on cheap labour, and says the variety and opportunities available should be better promoted, particularly to those who don't thrive in the education environment.
"One of the things we haven't celebrated enough is the fact that this industry is a step up for many people in the UK who leave school with few qualifications," Ibrahim adds.
"They've been let down by the education system and industries like ours provide them with the know-how and skills for teamwork, timekeeping and customer service. These are fantastic skills. The industry is a living academy in itself. We must do more to celebrate that. They may leave school without a maths or English GCSE but hospitality can give them an opportunity. They can gain skills and very quickly progress."
Ibrahim says that the industry has a great opportunity now that the government has increased its focus on apprenticeships. Over time, this could lead to a significant cultural shift that will encourage the next generation of hospitality's workforce, she believes.
"If we succeed in getting the government to become a partner in our 10-year plan we can get that narrative rewritten for those 13- to 14-year-olds. Then you begin to change the way it plays out in the future," Ibrahim says.
When he was named the Casna sponsored Hotelier of the Year in November, Northcote managing director Craig Bancroft made an impassioned plea for the industry to unite "to make a difference" with a multi-million pound campaign to tackle the skills shortage.
While Ibrahim cautions that hospitality is just one industry competing for a limited resource appealing to many different target audiences, she agrees there is more that can and should be done.
"We shouldn't ignore the great work that has already been done by Springboard and other charities," she adds. "But it's a competitive landscape. So if you have charities doing a bit here and there, the impact is limited. As we go forward the construction industry, the care sector, the manufacturing sector, the engineering sector and the tech sector will all be aggressively targeting the same schools and careers advisory services.
"It's not just about going big with a nationwide campaign. We have been leading two campaigns bringing in 3,500 businesses into the Big Hospitality Conversation alongside Springboard and the Department for Work and Pensions. The same goes for Hospitality Works."
That said Ibrahim does recognise that these campaigns alone won't be enough. Changing perceptions in the wider community is also required, along with a refinement of the hospitality's proposition compared to other industries.
"This is an industry in which we're all very passionate and we all love people," she says. "You can see the elements of the campaign. It's about people it's about experience."