Work permits and employing overseas workers

It may be necessary to recruit workers from overseas in order to overcome skill shortages or to find multilingual workers, especially if you operate your business in different countries. However it's crucial to understand the rules around employing overseas workers to avoid any regulatory mistakes and face penalties.

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Who is eligible to work in the UK?

Currently any British citizen and nationals of any European Economic Area (EEA) countries or Switzerland are allowed to work in the UK without seeking permission. This situation may change following Brexit if the UK leaves the Single Market.

Nationals of non-EEA countries must apply for a visa and (for Tier 2 and 5 visas) be employed by a licensed sponsor in order to work in the UK.

What are the main types of work visa?

Tier 1 – this is designed for investors and entrepreneurs who wish to invest in the UK, as well as a limited number of workers who have been endorsed as having 'exceptional talent' or 'exceptional promise'.

Tier 2 – this is the general type of visa which allows UK businesses to employ workers from non-EEA countries.

Tier 5 – this is designed to cover temporary workers undertaking certain roles (eg charity or religious workers and creative or sports professionals).

How do I apply for a visa?

Tier 1 - Visa applications can be made online. Fingerprints and a photograph must be taken at a visa application centre and fees must be paid in order to process the application.

Tier 2 - Employers must first apply to become a sponsor and then assign a certificate of sponsorship to the prospective employee. The employee needs to submit a visa application, pay any relevant fees and wait for approval before starting work.

Tier 5 - Just as with Tier 2, Tier 5 visas require a certificate of sponsorship to process the application. Fees must also be paid in order to process the visa application.

How do I check an employee's right to work - and what are the penalties?

All employers are obliged to check a prospective employee's right to work in the UK, prior to offering them a job, irrespective of whether they are claiming to be eligible to work in the UK. This involves:

  • Viewing the job applicant's original 'right to work' documents which prove that they have a right to work in the UK (eg British or EEA passport);
  • Checking that these documents are valid (eg photos resemble applicant and dates of birth match up); and
  • Making a copy of the documents which cannot be changed (eg photocopy), recording the date the check was made and keeping these copies for at least two years after the employee has ceased their employment.

For more information, see the right to work checklist from the Home Office.

What are the penalties for hiring illegal workers?

The criminal penalties for hiring illegal workers can range from an unlimited fine to 5 years imprisonment.

You could also face civil penalties of up to £20,000 for each illegal worker for not carrying out the proper right to work checks or not carrying out the checks properly, in addition to the criminal penalties.

Your business details may also be published by Immigration Enforcement as a warning to other businesses not to employ illegal workers.

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