Brexit-supporting Wetherspoon boss calls for more immigration to plug staff shortages

·Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
·3 min read

Watch: Brexit-supporting Wetherspoons boss calls for more EU migration

Tim Martin, the outspoken Brexit-supporting boss of JD Wetherspoon (JDW.L), has called for more liberal immigration rules to plug a skills gap in the hospitality sector.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Martin said: "The UK has a low birth rate. A reasonably liberal immigration system controlled by those we have elected, as distinct from the EU system, would be a plus for the economy and the country.

"America, Australia and Singapore have benefitted for many decades from this approach. Immigration combined with democracy works."

The hospitality sector is facing a jobs crunch as it reopens, with restaurants and pubs struggling to recruit staff as restrictions ease. Some are resorting to cash sweeteners such as referral fees to attract staff

UKHospitality, the industry body, estimates that businesses are struggling to recruit as many as 188,000 workers. The lobby has also called for a special visa to attract workers from overseas.

"It is time for the Government to review its list of shortage occupations and consider the introduction of an Australian-style visa scheme to enable the workers we need, who don’t meet the point-based system, to come and work here," Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said last week.

Martin said in a statement on Wednesday: "Most hospitality companies would probably support some sort of preferential visa system for EU workers, justified by ‘proximity’, maybe similar to UK/Ireland or Australia/New Zealand type arrangements."

Staff shortages have been blamed on a combination of Brexit and COVID-19. Brexit has made the UK a less attractive destination for low-paid work because of the difficulty settling here. 

JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin during a Brexit Party rally in Peterborough King's Gate Conference Centre as part of their European Parliament election campaign.
JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin during a Brexit Party rally in Peterborough King's Gate Conference Centre as part of their European Parliament election campaign. Photo: PA

COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem. The pandemic has pushed many foreign-born workers who were already in Britain to return home to be with their families. Hospitality bosses have also reported trouble re-recruiting UK-based staff as restrictions ease. Many are concerned about returning to work given the ongoing uncertainty around reopening and the pandemic.

Martin's comments may come as a surprise to those who have followed his public statements in recent years. He was one of the most outspoken pro-Brexit business chiefs in the UK, going as far as printing political arguments about leaving the EU on beer mats in his pubs.

Around one in three workers in the UK hospitality sector were migrants in 2019, according to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. In London, the proportion is even higher. Many of them come from the EU and KPMG estimated in 20217 that the UK hospitality sector would face a recruitment shortfall of 60,000 people per year if EU immigration was cut off completely.

Wetherspoon, one of Britain's best-known pub chains, employs around 40,000 people in the UK and recently announced plans to hire 2,000 more. The group is hoping to expand its staffing levels by 20,000 over the next 10 years.

Boris Johnson during a visit to Wetherspoons Metropolitan Bar in London with Tim Martin, Chairman of JD Wetherspoon
Boris Johnson during a visit to Wetherspoons Metropolitan Bar in London with Tim Martin, Chairman of JD Wetherspoon. Photo: PA

Martin downplayed Wetherspoon's recruitment issues, saying "anecdotal feedback" from his pubs suggested there had been "lots of people applying for jobs."

“We are finding recruitment more challenging in some of the seasonal towns, for example Newquay and pubs in Devon, but that’s no different to what we experience any year," Martin said in a statement provided to Yahoo Finance UK.

“Northallerton new pub opening last week for example, there were 160 applicants for 70 jobs. A senior manager today told me there were 20 applications for four vacancies at our pub in Biggleswade.

“My tentative conclusion is that Wetherspoon is in a reasonably good position in the country. Holiday areas could be very difficult, with accommodation scarce due to staycations. Wetherspoon may be faring better than others."

Watch: How to Brexit-proof your finances