No open door for India's tech workers in any UK trade deal

Both countries want it, but respective red lines could torpedo an agreement

The notion that a trade deal between the UK and India might see a flood of cheap tech workers heading to Britain appears to have been scuppered. The British government is prepared to consider temporary visas for skilled workers, but that's as far as it goes.

Last year, Home Secretary Suella Braverman caused controversy by saying she had "reservations" about any potential trade deal with the Asian giant because of fears it could increase immigration to the UK.

The UK and India have worked on a comprehensive free trade agreement since at least the start of last year, but the negotiations for this have already been through ten rounds since then, with one of the major sticking points believed to be India's expectation of easier access to the UK for many more of its skilled workers.

But in a response to the latest report from the International Trade Committee, UK Secretary of State for the Department for Business and Trade Kemi Badenoch said there would not be any commitments on immigration, nor would any trade agreement provide access to the UK domestic labor market.

"In negotiations we are discussing business mobility, which would make it easier for highly skilled professionals to deliver services in each other’s markets on a short-term and temporary basis," she wrote.

However, the Trade Secretary also said the UK was looking into the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, which she claimed might provide greater certainty to UK professionals seeking to practice in India.

The two countries already have in place a Young Professionals scheme whereby Indian and British professionals may work and live in each other's country for two years. Agreed in 2021, this allows Indian citizens between 18 and 30 years old to come to the UK for work.

At the same time, India is not in favor of the strong investment protection provisions the UK wants as a part of any potential deal. This is to provide UK businesses with assurances of fair and non-discriminatory treatment when operating in India, including access to adequate remedies such as an Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism.

What all this development means for the negotiations is uncertain, although it is likely the talks will simply proceed to yet another round rather than the two parties deciding to call the whole thing off yet.

However, while both sides are keen for a trade deal to be done, both also seem adamant not to budge on their own red lines in negotiations, and this could ultimately torpedo any agreement.

Badenoch said a strong trade deal would increase the economic links between the UK and India, potentially boosting the UK economy by billions over the longer term, and she said bilateral trade between the two states was worth £36 billion ($45.6 billion) in 2022. Both countries are said to be aiming to double bilateral trade by 2030 as part of any such deal.

Last week, UK investment minister Dominic Johnson was reported to have said that he was "very optimistic" about a free trade deal with India, but said the two countries could work more closely together on sectors such as financial services even without a trade pact.

The UK administration must be careful not to "hamper the prospects of the UK tech sector by depriving it of access to the skilled labor it needs", Tania Wilson, research director at TechMarketView told us.

"And limiting the mobility into the UK of skilled workers is particularly risky in the absence of sufficient investment in training the next generation of UK tech talent. The sector has had a particular problem with older workers taking early retirement in the post-Covid period, reducing the pool of experienced workers to train up newer joiners."

At the other end of the spectrum, there is a dearth of trainee computing teachers entering schools, with recruitment falling short of government targets by 70 percent in the 2022 trainee teacher intake.

"To some extent, an economic slowdown and the spiralling cost of living helps to redress all of these issues - vacancies fall as companies rein in their hiring plans, early retirees are lured back to work and people are more attracted to teaching as a more stable form of employment.

"But the government cannot rely on an economic contraction to solve its tech labour supply issues. Trade deals need to be negotiated with this domestic picture in mind. If restricting access of foreign workers to the UK labor market is a policy priority, the government needs a clear and well-funded plan to train and retain domestic labour." ®

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