Monday, June 24, 2024
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More than ever, cheap migrant labour is folly


LAST Thursday the Government published guidance to business on preparing for the points-based immigration system.

Inevitably, this led to a dusting-down of familiar arguments from business leaders and others on why the ending of free movement and Brexit were bad ideas.

However, the arguments have now morphed into a case for extending the post-Brexit transition beyond December 31. Additionally, it seems, the flow of overseas labour has to continue pretty much unabated – and all because of the coronavirus crisis.

A range of organisations, including the Financial Times, the Confederation of British Industry, London First, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the Scottish National Party and the Labour Party have all denounced the Government’s guidance.

London First’s Sophia Wolpers said the Government should put on hold its plans to end free movement and to impose a salary and skills threshold on those coming in, because it was ‘old thinking’.

Nick Thomas-Symonds, Diane Abbott’s successor as Shadow Home Secretary, reminded us of the important contribution front line workers such as nurses, carers, supermarket staff and refuse collectors make.

Fair enough. Then he added: ‘It will be a slap in the face to many of those workers to see themselves classed as low-skilled and unwelcome in Britain.’ (Note the insinuation of ‘unwelcome’.)

Someone at Labour Party HQ might have pointed out to him that it was Gordon Brown who introduced Labour’s version of the points-based system in 2008, with the skills classifications and definitions of what constitutes high, medium or low-skill thresholds upon which the main work visa route (Tier 2 General) has been based ever since.

In the rush to fight old battles, all these critics have glossed over what is happening and what its consequences will very likely be.

According to the Institute for Employment Studies, two million people in the UK have already lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. At the same time, Bloomberg Economics has forecast that the UK economy will contract by between ten per cent and 14 per cent this year and by 2.7 per cent next year (A one per cent growth was being forecast before the virus struck). While on Tuesday 14th, we heard from the Office of Budget Responsibility that the pandemic could see the economy shrink by a record 39% by June. 

The longer the lockdown continues, the greater the likelihood of numbers increasing and the need for employers to look to people already here to do the vital work that is helping us all to keep going in this crisis.

There are 2.4million European Economic Area workers already in the UK (133,000 came in 2019) and they can all continue working here. Indeed, the door will remain open for workers from EEA countries until the end of 2020.

Furthermore, as we have shown in research before this crisis struck, there are four million or so UK-born people who are either unemployed or ‘under-employed’ – that is to say they are either looking for a job, or looking to work for more hours in their existing roles. It is why we at Migration Watch were questioning the Government’s most recent immigration proposals.

The lockdown has made it even more imperative that the much-vaunted points-based system must encourage business to look seriously at hiring and training domestic talent before turning to overseas workers. The idea that we need a system that allows easy access to workers from abroad, prepared to work for lower wages, is clearly absurd. Many Brits – including students – will be only too willing to fill the breach.

We have already seen since the crisis started to unfold that thousands of people, including Brits, have signed up to pick fruit and vegetables at farms across the UK. The Times noted that employers and the Government have finally started a drive to ‘mobilise the British workforce’ (in the face of global travel restrictions that have led to a shortage of migrant workers). 

And, as the Daily Mail put it: ‘More than 26,000 people have answered a call to arms to “help feed the nation” by ensuring there are enough workers to pick fruit and vegetables before they go rotten’. 

The oft-heard claim that British people were not keen to do such work is simply not true. Just pay them a little more and treat them well (and I accept that many farmers do treat their workforce well enough).  We have long argued that relying on foreign seasonal labour perpetuates low productivity in the agricultural sector while potentially denying opportunities to British workers who are unemployed or are seeking part-time work. 

The same is true in many other sectors of employment. Let us hope that one of the silver linings behind this especially dark cloud will be decent wages and better working conditions, with improved transport and flexibility. To quote the Migration Advisory Committee: ‘Individual employers would almost always be able to recruit resident workers if they paid wages sufficiently above the going rate.’

To be sure, while the Government’s plan to restore sovereign control to our border is welcome, the proposed visa regime contains a number of serious risks. As we argued in our evidence to the official expert committee on migration, ministers should urgently reconsider proposals to:

n  Lower the earnings threshold for the higher-skilled (from £30,000 to £25,600) and the qualification requirement (from degree level to A-level).

n  Abandon the requirement for companies to advertise jobs in the UK first before hiring overseas (i.e. to do away with the resident labour market test).

n  Open a ‘new entrant’ route for migrant workers from around the world, which would allow an unlimited number to take up jobs at barely above the minimum wage.

n  Remove the cap on work permits, as the Government intends (doubtless under pressure from business.) This is an important safeguard for UK jobseekers.

Going back to Ms Wolpers et al; I agree with them. The Government must rethink its immigration proposals and come up with a tighter immigration regime than the one ministers have put forward. How anyone can possibly conclude that this crisis in any way justifies continued easy access for business to low-paid workers from abroad is beyond me.  

What we need, and the UK public deserve, is a system that prioritises all our interests, and especially those of UK jobseekers who will have more than enough to contend with when the lockdown is lifted without having to compete with people from around the globe prepared to work for lower wages however dire the conditions might be.

One final point. Following the 2008 financial crisis, it took six years for the number of UK-born workers to regain its pre-crash level, while the number of workers born abroad increased by more than a million. I hope and pray it is not an outcome that we will see repeated. Should the Government’s immigration proposals end up on the statute book, I fear that could well be what happens.

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Alp Mehmet
Alp Mehmet
Chairman of Migration Watch UK, former British diplomat.

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