Professional Comment

How The Hospitality Sector Can Utilise the UK Immigration System to Fill Job Vacancies as the Holiday Season Looms

By Jacqueline Moore, immigration consultant with full-service law firm, Thorntons (

As the sun finally begins to shine and the UK holiday season gets under way, one of the biggest challenges for many hospitality businesses continues to be getting the operational staff needed to run the business at the busiest time of the year.

As of 1 January 2021, the only citizens with an automatic right to live and work in the UK are British and Irish citizens. Everyone else needs a visa.
Some visa holders hold their own immigration permission, for example they could be here on a partner visa or an ancestry visa. Some have blanket permission to work, meaning they can work for any employer in any role, while others have restricted work rights. For those who do not hold their own immigration permission, however, sponsorship can offer an important means of employment.

Recruiting through sponsorship
A sponsor licence is a licence issued by the Home Office, which enables employers to recruit international staff. The employer applies for a sponsor licence and, once the licence is in place, they can issue a Certificate, known as a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS). The prospective employee then applies for a Skilled Worker Visa using the CoS.

A sponsor licence involves an investment in both time and money, although not perhaps as much as some might think. The cost of applying for a sponsor licence, which lasts for four years, is £536 for a small business and £1,476 for medium or large businesses. The employer must also comply with a number of sponsor duties in exchange for holding a sponsor licence.

Sponsor licence advantages
Businesses that hold sponsor licences report a number of benefits. Key among these is very high retention rates; although sponsored workers can change employers, the fact that a visa application is required acts as a disincentive.

Secondly, sponsored employees are permitted to do overtime for their sponsored employer, providing that the overtime is paid at the same rate or higher than the rate stated on their CoS. Employers report that sponsored workers are in general very willing to do overtime and provide emergency/sickness cover for colleagues when needed.

Thirdly, many employers report that having sponsored international staff brings fresh ideas into the business and promotes their organisation’s wider diversity strategy.

Lastly, a number of larger hospitality businesses have found sponsorship invaluable for recruiting chefs and spa managers, which have both been hard-to-fill roles following the end of free movement.

Key considerations

Despite the benefits, uptake of sponsorship in the hospitality sector has been slower than in other sectors as many roles do not meet the skills threshold for sponsorship. To be eligible, a role must be assessed as requiring a skill level set at Level 3 or above on the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF).

Currently this includes chefs (all levels), bar managers, catering managers, floor managers (restaurant) and health and fitness managers. Waiters (including head waiters), bar staff and beauty therapists are excluded, although there is a chance that sommeliers could be re-categorised to make them eligible.

Another important point to flag is processing timescales. The Home Office is currently receiving applications for sponsor licences at the rate of 500 new applications per week, with a standard processing time of eight weeks. There is a priority service, but only 30 new businesses a day are lucky enough to obtain this. The priority service operates on a first-come first-served basis, and slots open at 9 am, with only those applications arriving bang on the hour having any chance of success.

Once the licence is granted, there are further processing times and costs to consider in connection with the prospective employee’s Skilled Worker application. Employers must pay £199 to issue the Certificate and there is also an Immigration Skills Charge (ISC). The ISC is an employer levy and costs vary depending on the size of the business. A small sponsor pays £364 per year of the visa, a medium or large sponsor pays £1000 per year. There are then visa fees and fees to use the National Health Service. These fees can be subsidised by the employer or paid for by the employee, and practice varies widely across businesses and sectors. Skilled Worker visas take, on average, anywhere between 3-8 weeks to be processed.

Get a licence and advertise roles as sponsor-able

Another route worth considering is to advertise the roles as being sponsor-able. Clearly this only applies where the business has decided that they are prepared to pay the costs of sponsorship. Clients frequently tell us that obtaining a sponsor licence and being listed on the register of licensed sponsors can result in approaches from potential new hires. Some businesses decide to go one step further and will advertise as part of their recruitment process that they hold a licence and can sponsor the prospective employee.

Businesses also find that many sponsored workers become a source of recruitment, bringing in family and friends from their home country who are looking to live and work in the UK. Many businesses choose to incentivise this by operating staff commission schemes.

For the hospitality sector, the end of free movement has been very impactful on business operations. No immigration system will ever be as good as free movement but sponsorship can provide alternative options, and many businesses find that the advantages outweigh the costs and red tape involved.