Barista-Visa: Will Brexit Leave a Bitter Taste for the Coffee House?

By Grace Martin – Has Brexit left a bitter taste for the coffee shop industry? At long last, the government has come together to create a new immigration system…

By Grace Martin

At last, the government has come together to propose a new post-Brexit immigration system long-touted by Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. After the country officially ‘left’ the EU on the 31st of January, the effects of Brexit have, so far, been rather muted thanks to the transition period within which we currently stand. And while the government continues to propose legislation to prop-up their vision of the future for the country, there are those in the hospitality industry – such as myself – that believe that Brexit poses an imminent threat to the humble coffee shop.

A Brief History

The historical relevance of coffee consumption can be tracked alongside the history of foreign influence within our society. From it’s Turkish origins, the ‘coffee house’ has become an essential component of British life. Historically, it’s created spaces for both the middle- and upper-classes to gather and discuss literature, hold intellectual debates, talk politics, and consume the finest liquor imported from the Middle East.

The first documented coffee-house – the ‘Pasqua Rosee’ – opened in London, 1652. King Charles II (b. 1630, r. 1660 – 1685) once banned the coffee-house, believing it to be a place of political gossip and rebelliousness after the Restoration. However, this decree was practically unenforceable, so by the late 1600s and early 1700s, there were as many as 3,000 coffee houses in London alone.

pasqua rosee
Pasqua Rosee commemorative plaque

This growth of ‘coffee-house culture’ contributes to our understanding of Britain’s larger ethnic, social and commercial history. ‘Coffee-house culture’ led to the emergence of new political philosophers, and provided a space for those more socially-inclined to reflect on the world around them – as did Samuel Pephys, famous for his memoirs (1659 – 1669).

The coffee-house quickly became ingrained within our society, and while present-day coffee shops may not resemble those of history, I believe that they do maintain many of the elements historically associated with them. Even today, people gather to discuss their bright ideas, the important issues of the day, or just what’s been happening in their own lives. Though we live in an age of democracy, so we’re allowed to.

Screenshot 2020-03-09 at 22.04.21
An illustration of a coffee-house of old

Why is ‘Coffee-House Culture’ Relevant to Brexit?

In a word – immigration.

On the 19th of February, the government proposed a new points-based immigration system that’s similar to those used by the likes of Australia, Canada and the United States. It’s expected to come into operation from January 2021, though the reforms will sweep away some of the existing rights that EU nationals currently have when working in the UK. Some date back to January 1973, the month when the UK joined the European Economic Community.

While there will be a number of different processes to go through depending on where the person might be emigrating from, the nine main requirements for skilled workers, under this new system, will require every applicant to score a total of 70 points to be able to successfully emigrate to the UK.

The British Coffee Association (the BCA) estimates that 95 million cups of coffee are consumed per-day in the UK, which is a huge increase from their 2008 calculations that estimated a figure of around 70 million cups. Additionally, the BCA estimates that the coffee industry ‘creates approximately 210,000‘ jobs, 160,000 of which are known as ‘registered baristas’. As a result, the BCA will work with the government to ‘ensure a smooth transition [for] all its members on behalf of the industry’.

However, experts believe that the so-called ‘Barista-Visa‘ will hit hardest for the three major coffee chains in the UK, those being: Starbucks, Cafe Nero and Costa Coffee. This is because the Barista-Visa would only help those deemed to be a ‘very low-skilled worker’, despite the fact that many hospitality-related positions require relatively high-skilled workers to fill them. That, and all three of these companies rely on a workforce that KPMG believes consists of 12.3 to 23.7% EU nationals. Costa Coffee themselves believe that approximately 20% of their workforce are not ethnically British.

And that’s to say nothing of the potential impact on the price of the coffee bean with the proposed import taxes, or of the current shortfall of more than 40,000 baristas that, experts claim, will be exasperated by Brexit going forward.

And what about the smaller chains like Signorelli’s Deli here in Cambridge? Could they be impacted by the new immigration system or the proposed Barista-Visa? Colloquially, I believe so.

Why Does This Matter?

In my opinion, the concern should be focused on smaller, independent businesses and chains that are most at risk from the additional import taxes brought on by Brexit. We should also be concerned with how this newly-minted immigration system might impact the barista workforce, whether that be new applicants or members of the existing workforce.

I’m also concerned about whether we’re relying too heavily on large multinational chains from whom we purchase our coffee. I’m concerned about the local coffee shops who are having to compete with these businesses who can afford to undercut them. And I’m concerned that, with this reliance, comes a dampening of the slightly bohemian image cultivated by the coffee-house over the last 368 years.

And I’m also concerned about what the future holds for coffee shops in general. With the advent of personal coffee machines that boast about their café-quality coffee, what room will there be for the humble coffee shop in the future? I personally believe that coffee is best enjoyed socially, although this is an issue that could be its own article.

With the potential for disruption ever-present, it would be beneficial to see more students filling in the gaps by taking on part-time roles alongside their studies. As an MA student, and a part-time barista myself, I want to open the minds of students reading this to look into the possibility of joining the trade. Coffee shops are an important staple of the high-street, and an important pillar of the wider economy. So despite the trials that might lie ahead for the industry, I would encourage students to try to fill-in that 40,000 worker shortfall, as previously mentioned.

In my experience, most coffee shops offer flexible working hours, respectable wages, and provide a means of socialising, whether it be with other team members, or regular customers. So, when this COVID-19 crisis has abated, why not give it some thought?

Images: Grace Martin & Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash


‘The UK’s points-based immigration system: policy statement’ – 2020
‘Avoiding a No Deal Brexit Is Imperative for UK Coffee’ – 2019
‘Barista shortage fears as Brexit blamed for holding back recruitment’ – 2019
‘Barista visa plan does the UK hospitality sector a disservice’ – 2017

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