Theresa May has said that the UK will have control over its immigration policy for the first time in decades after Brexit.
The prime minister said low-skilled immigration will fall under a new visa system where it is "workers' skills that matter, not where they come from".
The plans follow a recommendation by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which was also backed by the Labour party. The cabinet agreed to the MAC's recommendations last week.
"The new skills-based system will make sure low-skilled immigration is brought down and set the UK on the path to reduce immigration to sustainable levels, as we promised,” May said. "At the same time we are training up British people for the skilled jobs of the future.”
A whitepaper outlining how the system will work will be published in the Autumn, ahead of new legislation next year. Under the proposals workers wanting to stay for longer periods would need a minimum salary, to ‘ensure they are not competing with people already in the UK’. Successful applicants for high-skilled work would be able to bring their immediate family, but only if sponsored by their future employers.
Chadi Moussa, director of HR and talent at produce supply business Wealmoor, said the news was "alarming" for business leaders. “Like many business leaders I find the news that we will need less low-skilled migration really alarming. Look at the hospitality sector, look at agriculture, they are hugely reliant on low-skilled workers,” he told HR magazine.
Moussa said that he felt the report was designed to appease Leave voters, adding that there was no evidence that reducing migration would benefit British national workers.
“This is clearly emotive; there is little to no evidence behind the idea that recruiting people from the EU is cheaper. The devaluation of sterling has caused more unrest than migration ever could. We know that EU workers contribute more than £2,300 more to the public purse than the average UK resident. I can’t see any other rationale other than a populist one.”
Businesses need clear policy moving forward, he said.
“There has been some policy around the status of EU workers, but it doesn’t go far enough. Businesses need absolute clarity, The report today was very academic, very emotive, and had little that could be helpful from an economic or business sense.”
British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson agreed that it did not make sense to have separate rules for low and high-skilled workers.
"We shouldn't be thinking about it like that, we should be thinking about what it is the economy needs and, from a retail industry point of view, what it is that we as consumers need in our day-to-day lives in buying the products that we are taking for granted," she told the BBC.
Julia Jackson, immigration partner at Wedlake Bell, warned of resourcing problems for many firms as a result of May's pledge to reduce low-skilled migration.
"Theresa May's announcement is bad news for many employers," she said. "There are already substantial shortages of labour in key unskilled or low skilled sectors such as farming and hospitality. Businesses in those sectors look likely to face ongoing recruitment and retention problems.
She added: "The proposed new system for skilled workers sounds like a reworking of Tier 2 of the points-based system which employers already dislike because it is expensive, bureaucratic and slow. It is disappointing to see that the focus remains on driving down the level of net migration rather than on designing an immigration system that is sensitive to the needs of business."