BN(O) passport holders: Look carefully before you leap

After the British people voted to leave the European Union in 2016, little thought was given to the resulting labor shortages. The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the single market meant the free movement of workers would end, and alternatives would be required. However, despite endless wrangling in Parliament over whether to honor the popular vote, the country’s labor needs were disregarded, with disastrous consequences.

The UK is now gripped by a manpower shortage, and EU workers can no longer step in. Although the looming crisis was there for all to see, local people were not trained up, and other labor sources were not identified. In 2019-20, when reality finally set in, various solutions were considered, although the one the government hit upon was never going to work.

In 2020, the United States decided, using the cover provided by the National Security Law for Hong Kong, to open up a new front in its rivalry with China by harming Hong Kong. It removed the city’s favorable trading status, sanctioned its officials and even proscribed the “Made in Hong Kong” label on imported goods. It urged its Five Eyes intelligence alliance partners to also put the boot in, and the British government duly obliged. Apart from suspending the UK-Hong Kong fugitive surrender agreement, canceling the supply of strategic equipment to the police force, issuing a travel advisory, and raising the specter of a withdrawal of British judges from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, came up with what he thought was a masterstroke. 

If, therefore, (Boris) Johnson imagined that, by luring people away from Hong Kong, he could solve his labor problems, he was sorely mistaken. Had (Dominic) Raab briefed him properly, he would have understood that there was no way they would give up their settled ways of life to drive lorries, process meat or pick fruit. Yet this is what is expected of them, and it is to their credit that the bulk are not as gullible as Johnson imagined. They realize their prospects are far better served by staying put, rather than chasing rainbows elsewhere

Encouraged by his foreign secretary, the hapless Dominic Raab, since demoted, Johnson announced that he would provide a “pathway to citizenship” for approximately 3 million holders of British National (Overseas) passports living in Hong Kong. He was very proud of this, believing it would serve the dual purpose of gratifying the US and solving his labor shortage. Although his Five Eyes partners applauded his attempt to “gut” Hong Kong, with some, notably Australia, even offering limited assistance, at least insofar as skilled people are concerned, his worker shortage remains unresolved, and is getting worse. Once the UK’s doors were opened, the numbers of Hong Kong people seeking to relocate fell way below expectations, and current estimates are that between 123,000 and 153,700 will relocate in 2021. This, however, is nowhere near enough to keep things running, particularly as many are minors.

But even if all those relocating were adults, the shortages would still remain. Indeed, the Road Haulage Association alone estimates that there is now a shortage of more than 100,000 qualified heavy-goods vehicle drivers in the UK, and few, if any, of the Hong Kong arrivals can drive lorries. In consequence, long queues are developing at petrol stations, where supplies are drying up. The problem, however, is not just about drivers, and the sectors affected include agriculture, food processing, retail, bars and restaurants, the construction industry and even care homes. 

The Confederation of British Industry, which represents 190,000 businesses, has highlighted huge difficulties. Its director-general, Tony Danker, says “shortages are already affecting business opportunities and will have a negative impact on the UK’s economic recovery”. The British Chambers of Commerce also points out that staff shortages will seriously affect economic growth, and more than two-thirds of British companies trying to hire new employees are struggling to find suitable candidates.

As Christmas approaches, the food industry has warned of panic-buying. The British Meat Processors Association reports that it is hard to attract local workers, and “industries are now competing with each other for a dwindling pool of workers”. As for the British Poultry Council, it says it is now 7,000 workers short. On Friday, the National Pig Association reported that the shortage of butchers at meat processing plants, caused by the exodus of eastern European abattoir workers, could lead to 120,000 pigs being culled and their carcasses dumped.

On Aug 27, Fortune magazine’s Adrian Croft summed it all up by noting that “empty supermarket shelves, fruit rotting in the fields for lack of pickers, milkshakes off the menu at McDonald’s — these are just some of the symptoms of an acute labor shortage in the UK that some economists say could have a lasting impact on economic growth”.

If, therefore, Johnson imagined that, by luring people away from Hong Kong, he could solve his labor problems, he was sorely mistaken. Had Raab briefed him properly, he would have understood that there was no way they would give up their settled ways of life to drive lorries, process meat or pick fruit. Yet this is what is expected of them, and it is to their credit that the bulk are not as gullible as Johnson imagined. They realize their prospects are far better served by staying put, rather than chasing rainbows elsewhere. But as so many people are spurning Johnson’s blandishments, panic is setting in.

In his new role as justice secretary, Raab, previously a Brexiteer and hostile to EU immigration, has now had to think the unthinkable. He has proposed that asylum-seekers should be allowed to work to help tackle the labor shortage, something that was previously anathema. After all, if people know that they can take up work when they enter the UK illegally, it will attract yet more of them to try to get across the English Channel. This, however, is apparently a risk worth taking, and, in another sign of panic, Raab has also suggested that prisoners should be allowed to take up paid work in the community, although even Johnson will likely recoil at this.

Something, however, must be done, and, on Saturday, some Band-Aid measures were announced. Whereas 200 military personnel, including 100 drivers, will provide “temporary” support to ease pressure on petrol stations, up to 300 overseas fuel drivers will be allowed to work in the UK immediately until the end of March. Although desperate times call for desperate responses, the numbers involved are miniscule and can only provide minimal relief.

Quite clearly, therefore, the situation is dire, and most Hong Kong people have had a narrow escape, and in more ways than one. Although the crime rate for the UK is relatively low, with 96.4 crimes per 1,000 people reported in 2019-20, some people are at particular risk. Since the first lockdown in early 2020, Britain’s East and Southeast Asian communities have, according to End the Virus of Racism, an advocacy group, seen a 300 percent increase in hate crimes. The London Assembly’s race-hate crime dashboard says there was a sharp spike in race hate crime in June 2020, and that the number of offenses in London increased sharply again to 1, 827 in April. 

On June 7, the Hong Kong Free Press provided the harrowing perspectives of Vicky Sung, from the Hackney Chinese Community Centre, in east London. She explained that, “for British Chinese, you expect racism — hate is not new. People coming to the UK should know it can happen anytime and anywhere”. This, however, is the last thing Johnson wants Hong Kong people to know about, as it would scare them off. But the latest developments mean things can no longer be played down, let alone hushed up.

In early 2020, Jonathan Mok, a law student from Singapore, suffered a fractured nose and cheekbone after a racist attack by four youths in Oxford Street, London. In a Facebook post, he asked, “Why should anyone, simply because of the color of their skin, be subject to abuse, in any form, verbal or physical”, adding that “racism is hate”. 

In Southampton, meanwhile, Peng Wang, a university lecturer from China, needed treatment for facial and elbow injuries after four men punched and kicked him to the ground while he was out jogging, shouting “Go home”. He had been teaching at the university for six years, and he said he was very concerned for the safety of Chinese nationals in the UK. He added, “I hope my experience can serve as a reminder to them to notice the potential danger”. 

In Wales, Shirley Au-yeung, from the Chinese in Wales Association, said that, as a result of rising incidents during the pandemic, members of the Chinese community no longer feel safe or welcome. In Birmingham, the police have now had to give the Chinese Community Centre staff training in how to handle hate crimes. It is clear, therefore, that Chinese communities across the country must always be alert.

On Sept 28, it was reported that a gang of 12 youths was targeting anyone who is Chinese in Cambridge, with one of its victims only 15 years old. Apart from shouting racial abuse, the gang physically attacked its victims, with one 25-year-old man, Zhang Yuanzhou, requiring facial surgery after being beaten up while out shopping for groceries. In response, Zhang, who said “the physical and mental damage is overwhelming”, has just launched the “Stop Asian Hate” petition online. It calls for action “to combat the growing number of hate crimes against Asians”, and it immediately attracted 1,000 signatures. 

The chairman of the Cambridge Chinese Federation, Andy Tse, who has lived in Cambridge for 30 years, said he has not previously witnessed racist attacks like this. After the attack on Zhang, he disclosed that nine attacks had been reported to him in the previous three days. He said “These are intentional attacks on our Chinese community and this is quite shocking”, adding that “We’re deeply worried for our own safety”. Many of the victims, moreover, were “scared to come forward, especially now that this is ongoing”. 

Between Sept 7 and 26, nine students were left bloodied and bruised and in need of hospital treatment after being attacked in Sheffield. Chinese students at the city’s university were said to be “living in fear”, and the Chinese consul general has called for reassurances over their personal safety. Although the case is still unfolding, the police have categorized at least some of the attacks as hate crimes. Indeed, it appears that problems of this sort are by no means unknown in the city, and, after Michael Chiu, a student at Sheffield Hallam University, was racially abused and had fruit thrown at him, he told Sky News, on May 5, 2020, that “I have grown up with racism my entire life but to have adults using that kind of language and that kind of racism towards me … it was just extremely shocking”.

In his recent book, The Chinese in Britain — A History of Visitors and Settlers (2019), the author, Barclay Price, says that, despite Chinese residents being second-, third- and fourth-generation Britons, they experience one of the highest levels of racism, and his book should be required reading for anybody contemplating a move to the UK. 

If, moreover, would-be emigrants have children, they should be getting in-depth information on the schooling situation.  Although many schools are undoubtedly safe, parents need to be aware of the recent findings of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. On May 30, 2019, pre-COVID, it reported that racial abuse and bullying of ethnic minority children had risen by one-fifth since 2015-16, and that some were even trying to change their appearance, including skin whitening, to protect themselves. It found there were over 10,500 race-hate crime offenses against children across the UK in 2017-18, an average of 29 a day.

By 2020, things were no less problematic. Jenny Wong, for example, director of the Manchester Chinese Centre, reported that she was receiving “scores of complaints” about racist incidents against Chinese children at schools across the area. She said they were “being bullied by their classmates”, as well as shunned. 

In these circumstances, answers are required. Why is it that Johnson and Liz Truss, Raab’s successor as foreign secretary, are not explaining to Hong Kong people what is actually going on in the UK? Why are they not being told of the labor shortages, the menial jobs, and the grim economic forecasts? Why are the proliferating assaults on Chinese people, and the abuse, not being drawn to their attention? Why are they not receiving the briefings they require to make informed decisions about their children’s future? Why is there so much obfuscation?

If, however, Johnson and Truss are not prepared to level with Hong Kong people, perhaps the UK’s new consul general, Brian Davidson, will take matters into his own hands. After all, they need to understand that, if they move to Britain, they will not discover a land of milk and honey, but a country riven with problems, including race hate, something many will not previously have experienced. Quite clearly, prospective migrants should know what they are letting themselves in for, and this should be before, and not after, they have burned their bridges.

The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.