The two people who sat down in reception without an appointment would not leave the startup’s office until the end of the day. Two months later, a letter followed informing the company it had been sus| Techie World
The two people who sat down in reception without an appointment would not leave the startup’s office until the end of the day.
Two months later, a letter followed informing the company it had been suspended from the United Kingdom’s register of licensed sponsors, the database of companies the government has approved to employee foreign workers. The business had 20 working days from the typed date to make “representations” and submit “evidence” and “supporting documents” to counter the “believed” infractions spread across 12 pages, threaded through with copious references to paragraphs, annexes and bullet points culled from the Home Office‘s official guidance for sponsors.
Early in the new year another letter arrived, and an assessment process that had begun with an unannounced visit one autumn morning delivered its final verdict: The revocation of Metail‘s sponsor license with immediate effect.
“There is no right of appeal against this decision,” warns paragraph 64 of the 22-page decision letter — in text which the sponsor compliance unit has seen fit to highlight in bold. “Whilst your client can no longer recruit sponsored workers under Tier 2 and 5 of the Points Based system, they can continue to recruit UK and EEA workers as well as non-EEA nationals that have the right to work in the UK. The revocation of the license does not stop a business from trading,” the letter concludes. Tier 2 is the general work visa for regular employees, while Tier 5 is for temporary workers.
The government department that oversees the UK’s immigration system gets to have — and frame — the last word.
London-based Metail is a decade-plus veteran of the virtual fitting room space, its founders having spied early potential to commercialize computer vision technology to enable individualized sales assistance for online clothes and fashion shopping. It now sells services to retailers including photorealistic 3D body models to power virtual try-ons; algorithmic size recommendations; and garment visualization to speed up and simplify the process of showcasing fashion products online.
Metail has approached research-heavy innovation in the field of 3D visualization with determined conviction in transformative commercial potential, tucking $32 million in VC funding under its belt over the years, and growing its team to 40 people (including 11 PhDs) at a head office in London and a research hub located close to Cambridge University where its British founder studied economics in the late ’90s. It’s also racked up an IP portfolio that spans computer vision, photography, mechanics, image processing and machine learning — with 20 patents granted in the UK, Europe and the US, and a similar number pending. Years of 3D modeling expertise and a substantial war-chest of patents might, reasonably, make Metail an acquisition target for an ecommerce giant like Amazon that’s looking to shave further friction off of online transactions.
Nothing in its company or business history leaps out to suggest it fits the bill as a “threat to UK immigration control.” But that’s what the language of the Home Office’s correspondence asserts — and then indelibly inks in its final decision.
Image via Getty Images / franckreporter
The January 31 decision letter, which TechCrunch has reviewed, shows how the Home Office is fast-tracking anti-immigrant outcomes. In a short paragraph, the Home Office says it considered and dismissed an alternative outcome — of downgrading, not revoking, the license and issuing an “action plan” to rectify issues identified during the audit. Instead, it said an immediate end to the license was appropriate due to the “seriousness” of the non-compliance with “sponsor duties”.
The decision focused on one of the two employees Metail had working on a Tier 2 visa, who we’ll call Alex (not their real name). In essence, Alex was a legal immigrant had worked their way into a mid-level promotion by learning on the job, as should happen regularly at any good early-stage startup. The Home Office, however, perceived the promotion to have been given to someone without proper qualifications, over potential native-born candidates. We detail the full saga over on Extra Crunch, along with the takeaways that other startups can learn from.
For Metail, the situation suddenly became about its own existence and not just the fate of one hardworking younger employee.
A major first concern for Adeyoola was what the loss of Metail’s sponsor license meant for Chen — and by extension Metail’s ability to continue business-critical research work.
The Home Office letter provided no guidance on specific knock-on impacts. And the lawyers Metail contacted for advice weren’t sure. “Our lawyers told us that was the implication. In their revocation notice, they do not tell you what it means explicitly. You have to figure that out for yourself,” says Adeyoola. “Hence it is confusing and unclear.”
The lawyers advised Chen’s employment be suspended to keep the rest of the company safe — which instantly threw up further questions.
Image via Getty Images / Dina Mariani
“We had to operate on lowest common denominator basis until we had written notice. Because systems operate on a ‘with prejudice’ basis,” says Adeyoola of the week Chen had been suspended from work.
Nearly six months after filing for it in October, Chen’s indefinite leave to remain came through.
But by that time Metail’s sponsor license had gone. Now they wouldn’t be able to hire more people like Chen without overcoming major hurdles.
Image via Toby Melville / WPA Pool / Getty Images
A photograph of the UK prime minister, Theresa May, smiles down at the reader of the Wikipedia page for the Home Office hostile environment policy.
As smiles go, it’s more rictus grin than welcoming sparkle. Which is appropriate because, as the page explains, the then-home secretary presided over the introduction of the current hostile environment, as the coalition government sought to deliver on a Conservative Party manifesto promise in 2010 to reduce net immigration to 1990 levels — aka “tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands”.
The policy boils down to: deport first, hear appeals later. One infamous application of it during May’s tenure as home secretary saw vans driven around multicultural areas of London, bearing adverts with the slogan ‘Go Home’. The idea, criticized at the time as a racist dog-whistle, was to convince illegal workers to deport themselves by making them feel unwelcome.

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