UK: Tesco's Visa Mess: What Lessons Can Retailers Learn?

Last Updated: 6 November 2012
Article by Glyn Lloyd

With many retailers dependent on casual foreign student labour, particularly as the Christmas period approaches, lessons should be learnt following reports that Tesco faces fines of up to £200,000 for reportedly employing non-EEA students in breach of their visa restrictions.

A UK Border Agency inspection at Tesco recently discovered 20 foreign students working longer hours than their visas permitted. It has been reported that all 20 were arrested, and seven were deported. Tesco now faces a potential fine of £10,000 per illegal worker and no doubt increased scrutiny in the future from the UKBA.

Of course, the retailer is not the only organisation which has recently drawn attention from the UKBA, for the wrong reasons. London Metropolitan University's sponsor licence was recently revoked, resulting in many foreign students at the institution having to find programmes at alternative institutions. The UKBA's decision is being contested in court, but the issue may crucially have caused reputational damage that is now beyond repair.

What links the UKBA's criticisms of both Tesco and the London Metropolitan University, and what can retailers learn from these experiences? It is firstly a matter of procedure, and ensuring the organisation has a correct process in place to ensure that it complies with the Immigration Rules. Secondly, and more importantly for employers, it is a matter of understanding who has the right to work in the UK.

It is common for the retail sector to employ non-EEA students on a casual basis, and confirming their right to work should always be done before the employment relationship commences. Having initially checked the person's right to work (by reviewing and taking copies of their relevant documents), retailers should repeat the process at least every 12 months. Maintaining this procedure should prevent illegal working and afford the employer a defence against any UKBA penalties (although of course there is no defence against the offence itself and criminal charges can be brought against employers who knowingly employ individuals illegally).

The second issue - understanding who has the right to work in the UK - can be more complex as it will largely depend on the individual's permission to be in the UK. Determining whether a student, in particular, is eligible to work, and their conditions of employment, depends on their course and when they initially entered the UK:

  • students granted visas before 31 March 2009 can work up to 20 hours per week during term time, and they are not restricted outside of term time;
  • the above arrangement exists for students granted visas between 31 March 2009 and 4 July 2011 who are studying at or above degree level or foundation degree level. However, any other students given permission to study in the UK during this period are restricted to 10 hours per week during term time (both categories can work full-time outside term time);
  • the position regarding students who were granted visas after 4 July 2011 is more complex. Students on degree and foundation degree courses must be studying at 'acceptable higher education institutions' to be eligible to work 20 hours per week during term time. Students who are below degree level who are similarly at 'acceptable further education institutions' are eligible to work 10 hours per week. Both categories can work full-time outside term time. However, students who are below degree level and who are not enrolled at an acceptable FE institution cannot work at all.

In all of the above cases, the student must not pursue a career by filling a permanent full time vacancy. The UKBA reserves the right to inspect any organisation without giving prior notice. Retailers are therefore recommended to take the following steps to avoid illegal working, financial penalties and adverse publicity:

  • before the employment commences, check the student visa and take copies, confirming their eligibility to work and their maximum number of working hours. Students should be asked to provide a letter from their institution confirming their enrolment; term dates; and whether the institution is registered as an acceptable one (if the student's visa was granted after 4 July 2011); and
  • during employment, establish a system to ensure compliance with the maximum weekly working hours, and diarise repeat checks every 12 months. 


Using a combination of talks and interactive case studies, Morgan Cole is hosting a seminar in Oxford on 13 November, which is designed to assist organisations that already employ, or wish to recruit, workers from outside the UK. Setting out practical approaches to issues arising from the employment of non-EEA workers, the seminar will cover the following topics:

  • Employees, secondees and business visitors: who can work in the UK?
  • Employing skilled workers under the Points Based System
  • Sponsorship duties and rights to work
  • TUPE and Terminations: the tensions between employment law and the Immigration Rules
  • UKBA inspections and enforcement

The seminar is free of charge.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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