Brexit. A term that has been used recently to explain UK’s interest in pulling out of the European Union. By now I think we all know what the EU is and what it stands for (albeit the fact the biggest online search term from the UK this past weekend was ‘what is the EU’. Hilarious.)
In summary, however, the EU was formed to basically improve the economic well-being of its 28 member states. Cameron, who was pro-EU stay, stated that it should now be a decision by the public (by way of referendum) as to whether or not the UK should stay or leave the European Union. And so the polls called it; British voters endorsed European Union Exit.
I could go on about the ins and out, the pros and cons on the ‘Leave or Remain’ debate but I think I will just talk about my personal experience. I lived in the UK. London. Not too long ago and not for too long. I was a legal immigrant on a short stay or limited stay – student visa it was called. After deciding to pursue my master’s degree abroad, almost everyone I talked to was not too keen about me going to England.
They said it is too rigid. Too tight. That the policies on student visas don’t give you room to do much outside of class and that applying for the visa itself was a long and tedious process. I did it nonetheless because the UK was the only place where I could complete a business post-graduate degree within a year.
And so in London, I arrived – just as the leaves turned yellow and the wind became unforgiving. I loved it. I went to school. I studied long hours in the library. I did my own laundry. I toured the city. I tried microwave food. And I got blown away by the intense multiculturalism in London. I mean, I probably brushed shoulders with more immigrants or non-born Brits than I did actual Brits. Even those born there mostly had their roots from other countries; Jamaica, Poland, China, Nigeria, Albania. I was stunned.
But I needed work. London was extremely expensive and I wanted to do more leisurely activities –all which cost a pretty penny. I dropped my CV at a recruitment agency and within a couple of weeks I had a job. An office job at that. Another pleasant surprise see, that nepotism was not the number one recruitment method in London. That a young and ambitious Kenyan girl like me that didn’t pronounce ‘water’ as ‘wo-ah’ could get a job at a multinational in a city such as this. Sure, it was part-time, 20 hours a week max as stipulated in my visa, but it paid, got me into the English job market I so desperately wanted to experience and added onto my resume.
A few months in, I decided that I wanted to stay in England after my studies. For a little bit. They were so ahead. I had so much to learn, so many new ways of doing things. Especially in my field, marketing, it was a whole new world for me. I started to apply for jobs within the field. I decided on an entry level job because I didn’t feel like my experience in marketing at my home country could get me through the rigorous interview levels. I also felt like I needed to learn rather than manage. I was in a new market with different kinds of customers that had all sorts of dissimilar consumption patterns from those I knew.
By my fourth job interview I was hopeful. I had discovered that the Brits really did mean it when they asked, “What can you do for Us?” I practiced and polished my interviewee skills. This time I made it to the final stage. The few of us that had been selected sat nervously in the global marketing firm’s board room, all of us avoiding eye contact and mostly staring down. The carpet was impeccably clean.
“Hello everyone! You alright? That was good! So can I just have all of your passports please? For some processing?” Hannah, the very friendly HR lady walked in with that dreaded list in hand, a politely rehearsed smile in broad display. We all handed our passports to her. I noticed that mine was the only blue coloured one. She flashed me a look and then quickly turned away. I wasn’t sure what I had just read from her face.
Shortly after, she came back and pulled me aside, “Erm, Julia… I was just wondering… I realize that you are erm…” she looked down at the piece of paper, now limp, in her hand from use “Kenyan is it?”
“Yes…” I responded.
“Right. And do you have erm… a work permit?” her voice was soft and almost motherly.
“Yes, I do, but as a student. After you take me up on a permanent basis, the company will have to sponsor me. But you are a registered sponsor… so I figured it would not be a problem…” I responded coolly.
“No, no, not at all! We actually do have a lot of people here on work permit… Em…this doesn’t affect the outcome of your interview. Not to worry!”
That night I called home. I told my mom and dad that work visas in the UK are a nightmare to get. That it was not easier for students. Even masters students. That I wanted 2 years work experience in the UK and that this would really propel my career but it was seeming unlikely. Mother asked when I would hear back from the company. “Tomorrow. They call us tomorrow.”
That night I went online and did some research. As it turned out just a couple of years ago, students would be given 2 extra years on their visas to work and live in the UK following the end date of their school year. For my lot however, we only got 4 months. 4 months to get a job that would sponsor our stay (basically pay us a salary through work) and thus allow us to be granted a work permit. Four Months. I found a group online that protested this, “What is four months? I can’t even get part time in four months where I live! “One student lamented.
In another article I read about the concerns of Britain and the high level of immigration. “We need to pull out of the EU. Too many jobs are being lost to these immigrants who are willing to work for lower wages,” a worker was quoted saying. “These immigrants, they come and live here and use up all our benefits. Our taxes are going into their pockets… Our healthcare system is under too much pressure,” another quote stated. I recalled going to hospital once…I didn’t have to pay because National Health covered me. Being a legal immigrant, I had access to free health care. I wondered if I was putting pressure on the NHS.
I wrote under the comments section of the article,
“What about students? We have paid to be here. In the tens of thousands of pounds… International students make more than half of the immigrant population in England and we have paid to be schooled here. We have gained education from here and we are willing to WORK here, PAY TAXES and therefore contribute to society, rather that only take away from it. I understand that this is a complex issue but as an international student who is looking for a skilled job, I don’t think the process should be as barred. Is this issue on the exit and stay of the UK within the EU about economic freedom or just a masked case of extreme Xenophobia?”
The following day, Hannah called me. I wondered why she used her personal mobile phone rather than the office line she had used before, to contact me. Her voice was preppy as usual but I sensed something else in her voice.
“You didn’t get the job. “
“Is it because I am not British (EU)?” I interjected.
“Julia… these matters are quite complex. No. it’s not because of that.” She paused.
“But a lot is changing in England and companies risk a lot when they are tied in between government decisions and an employed work force. The issue is not us…” She paused again and took in a deep breath before changing her official tone to that motherly one before saying, “We want to have qualified people here. But sometimes-” “Yeah, I understand. It’s okay. You don’t have to explain,” I interrupted. For some reason I felt bad that she was trying to make me feel better. “I do wish you all the best Julia!” she went back to her HR-friendly, politically correct self “I know you will do well. Do keep looking at our career page for more opportunities…”
The rest of my interviews were pretty much the same after that. Tasha, my friend from New York who I also was in school with, gave up after 2 job interviews, “Going back to the Big Apple girl! No point staying here any longer…” She too, an American, needed a work visa to work in England. Katyia was next to leave, then Karina and then me- all of us international students. Kacey stayed 3 months after me… she wasn’t ready to give up just yet. She also preferred London winters-it was December, Russia’s cold was merciless.
And so now that the Brits got what they wanted, I wonder what will happen to my friends who stayed behind… those from the EU like Daniel from Hungary and Terry from Italy. What of Huyen who fell in love and married a Polish guy who lived and worked in London? Will she have to move to Poland with him?
At the end of the day, I feel like this is an immigration issue rather than anything else. I may be wrong but most immigrants coming into the UK are young people ready to work and by doing so spur economic growth and help pay for public services. There are those that take advantage of the system so I may empathize a little with the pro Brexit folk. It all depends on how you look at this issue though and what you deem important for ones economy. I on my end am happy to be home. I will be back to visit though! Hope you don’t deny me a visa for that too!