Contractors, to unlock work from October 2022, you’ll need an in-date, valid passport

In what could be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for,’ the new Digital Right to Work programme which I’ve championed is a big step forward albeit with a potential impact on people finding jobs from October, so I and others have had to warn parliamentarians, and here I’d like to warn contractors too, writes Keith Rosser, director of group risk and screening at Reed.

Under the new plans, job-seekers will be able to obtain work remotely via the use of digital identity technology – as said, from October 20222.

Where the new digital ID check scheme for employers will come into its own, for contractors

This means a contractor in Cornwall could go forward for work with a hirer or intermediary based in Berwick-Upon-Tweed (England’s northernmost town), without ever having to meet the hirer in person!

To be available on a permanent footing, the programme effectively extends what we all became accustomed to during the covid-19 pandemic, the ‘Adjusted Checks’ – whereby those who have landed a job or temporary work can begin the actual work thanks to online / video interviewing and document-checking remotely / virtually.

So it’s massively advantageous for candidates and the UK as a whole that a digital solution has been found, to continue the positive benefits of the pandemic-inspired scheme. In fact, I was a key advocate in bringing this extension about, as evidenced by me appearing in the UK government’s press release on the programme in January. 

It sounds good, why the worry?

However there is a problem. The new digital identity system for employers is based on users having in-date, valid passports -- and them being willing to create a digital ID. Worryingly, the last census suggests one in five job-seekers do not have an in-date passport or visa.

Further ominously, this figure gets bigger the further from London one ventures. So while only one in 10 job-seekers in the capital do not have a valid passport or visa, as many as three in five do not have a valid passport or visa in the North West or North East. Typically, these towns or cities where passport validity is low are where jobs are least available, and where contractors most need the remote job opportunities. So the restrictions of this scheme will bite the hardest where arguably its potential is needed the most.

Want a new passport to get a job? That’ll be four months please

What's further unsettling is that applications via .gov for a new passport are currently taking three to four months to be completed. Unfortunately that means anyone reading this now, without an in-date passport in their possession, may already be too late. 

Similarly, any freelance professional in the UK with a passport expiring in the next six months, needs to move quickly -- or be left for a period without the ability to secure work remotely. Previously, and before the government approved the new digital system for employers, expired UK passports were sufficient for someone to get a job. But they won’t be from October 2022. 

Close to outrage, some independent professionals I know have said to me – ‘Surely, I can still land a job after September 30th 2022?, even if my passport has lapsed?’ Well, of course you can, but only if the freelancer without a valid passport is able to visit the hirer or intermediary in-person, physically, to present identity documents (such as a birth certificate), or is willing to post original identity documents across the UK -- and risk loss or theft! 

What's being done?

As it’s not just you who’s thinking ‘this doesn't sound right,’ on May 5th I spoke at a Parliamentary Briefing session chaired by a member of the House of Lords, specifically on the issue (and others) relating to the incoming digital right to work scheme.

Evidence was also heard from large employers, some of whom warned they would offshore roles where virtual, remote hiring would be easier, potentially damaging the opportunities available to UK based contractors.

At the time of writing, the Home Office have been asked to reconsider the scheme -- and include provisions for job-seekers without in-date documents and/or those unwilling to engage in digital identity. Fortunately, this is gaining further support from peers and politicians. 

The future of remote work (looks pretty bright)

The future for remote hiring, driven by remote right to work checks -- and assuming this passport issue can be resolved, is bright indeed. Organisations will soon be able to move to virtual, flexible hiring models definitively, utilising more skilled freelancers and other non-permanent employees on a project basis, almost as business-demand dictates in a hybrid, more efficient way.

Intermediaries, including recruitment agencies and umbrella companies, will be able to move to digital models, thereby increasing their scope to compete more broadly. Alongside side such models for these more established labour market players, new platforms dedicated to linking freelancers to ‘gigs’ in different ways will likely emerge. The upshot is the likely offshoring of work-finding models and platforms, with greater competition and opportunity for candidates, whether you’re UK- focussed, more of an international consultant, or a contractor based or working overseas.

But it could be a case of 'be careful what you wish for' all over again! Because while all this will invariably be positive for freelancers, it could cause headaches for government as they deal with extraterritoriality (i.e. business models becoming virtual and registered outside the UK to avoid UK legislation). That means our officialdom will have to be ready to adapt or leverage an already incomplete regulatory and enforcement framework, to deal with a digital future. For now at least, that is their problem. In the short term for everyone else, it should mean extra opportunities for freelancers and contractors despite increased global competition, on condition the independent worker has an in-date passport of course, or else be trapped in a bygone age of job-hunting.

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Written by Keith Rosser

Keith Rosser is a labour market expert with almost 20 years working in hiring. Currently a Group Director at Reed, the UK's largest family-owned recruitment business, and Chair of 2 joint UK government and industry bodies: the Better Hiring Institute and JobsAware.
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