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As Brexit Bulldog David Davis lurches from one poorly timed press conference to another in much the same way as a drunk on a pub-crawl, those of us in the lowly masses who did our bit in the referendum last year can only sit and wait patiently for him and his colleagues to demonstrate some kind of acumen in negotiations with the EU. I sense it will be a long wait.
Meanwhile some recent revelations in the form of leaked documents have thrown some red meat to those whose main motivation during last year’s historic vote was to keep Johnny foreigner out of Blighty. As many people said at the time, you didn’t have to be a xenophobe to vote leave, but if you already were one, you probably did.
For those people, suggestions that the government will end free movement of labour on day one of a newly independent UK, and introduce restrictions to deter all but highly-skilled EU workers must have sent a cheer through the ranks.
The idea that EU nationals were pouring into the UK to take lower paid jobs that could be done by our own citizens has been pervasive for more years than I can remember. This was even coupled at one time with the now infamous ‘Schrödinger’s migrant’ who not only came here to steal jobs from honest British workers, but also sat at home claiming unearned benefits as well.
It is of course equally apocryphal to claim that EU migrants are coming here to do the jobs that UK nationals don’t want to do, but as someone who experienced this first hand I have to say it certainly seemed that way to me.
Prior to the much vaunted influx of Polish workers in the early noughties my company had struggled to find staff for our retail stores. Not that we were paying particularly low wages, in fact we paid well over minimum for the majority of the time, but simply because retail jobs weren’t popular with Brits.
It’s a long day, on your feet, dealing with people who often treat you like second class servants. It’s not for everyone, but it certainly seemed to be for many newly arrived EU nationals. We went from struggling to find decent staff to an embarrassment of applications, all from bright, motivated and keen people who simply wanted to do the job properly.
I won’t argue with accusations that the above is purely anecdotal, but it was my experience. It’s also an experience born out in many other industries such as agriculture, the restaurant trade and other service based sectors and a view shared by many of the UK’s small businesses, represented by the FSB. Earlier this year they reported that over half of Britain’s small businesses were worried about access to workers after Brexit. One-fifth of small employers said that they employ staff from the EU, and Theresa May playing to her hard right gallery on immigration doesn’t bode well for them.
The idea that we should prioritise only highly skilled workers also seems to run counter to the idea of foreign workers taking jobs from British citizens. The much quoted Australian points based system for example was introduced to encourage more migration of skilled workers, not to discourage more menial staff and has in fact led to a very high levels of immigration. In a country where there’s a shortage of such skills this might make sense. But for a country like the UK where candidates for higher end positions are home-grown, the problem is simply shifted up the scale. We essentially focus our immigration policy to directly compete with people we’ve invested huge resources in training, while lower skilled jobs such as fruit picking and table waiting are left unfilled.
In an example of political synchronicity, at the same time as the policies in these leaked documents were being disavowed by the very people who probably had them leaked in the first place, we also heard revelations from Vince Cable about allegedly suppressed reports that were sat on by Theresa May during her time as home secretary in the coalition.
Cable claimed that during his time as Business Secretary she refused to allow the publication of 9 separate studies that showed immigration had little impact on jobs or wages because their findings were “inconvenient” to her narrative on immigration numbers. The Lib Dem leader will now formally write to May to demand she publish the documents saying “I remember it vividly. Overwhelmingly it has been the case that overseas workers have been complimentary rather than competitive to British workers.”
In 2014 a report by the independent Migration Advisory Committee estimated that only 6% of all low-skilled workers were from other EU countries, even though the definition of ‘low skilled’ is something that has never been fully quantified. Interestingly though the same report identified that about 60% of migrants in low-skilled jobs come from non-EU countries, with many of them coming to this country more than a decade ago.
Last year a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded that, with the possible exception of Premier league footballers, there was no evidence foreign workers took jobs away from UK citizens. In fact it argued that migration from the EU is “good for the public finances” and that if we were significantly to reduce the number of EU migrants, we would have to borrow more, raise taxes or spend less.
Whilst the report conceded that migration as a whole may have had an impact on the wages of UK-born lower-skilled workers this would only have been by 1 per cent over a period of eight years. A minor effect that is by no means conclusive. While a Home Office report in 2014 found that there was no effect on native-born workers from immigration when the economy was strong. Something that the Conservative government never tires of telling us is the case.
Meanwhile worried farmers in the UK are concerned about who will fill key low-skilled jobs in their industry if immigration in this sector were to be targeted. The only comfort they have received so far are vague notions of special visas for such workers or Andrea Leadsom’s hopes that young UK workers will “re-engage with the countryside” and take up the menial jobs they have hitherto eschewed. A more sinister reading of her comments might suggest that people such as benefits claimants could be forced to work in the fields. Not such a wild notion when one remembers the principles of the Workfare program.
As with much of the Tory Brexit strategy the rhetoric is muddled, inconsistent and short-sighted with leaks such as these doing nothing to help a negotiating stance on key connected issues such as the single market and the customs union, both dependent on the principle of free movement of labour. Considering one of the key sticking points in negotiations at the moment is the status of EU nationals in the UK after Brexit, it seems we’re not exactly smoothing the way towards a mutually advantageous conclusion.
Having said that, the virtual silence from Labour on the matter is rather deafening. Confirming that even within their ranks the immigration debate still remains divisive.
There are also echoes in all of this of Trumpian priorities drifting across the pond from that other bastion of nightmarish political shambles. The announcement about the erosion of migrant rights in the US such as the recent cancellation of the DACA program shows just how close we are to emulating our colonial cousins in tearing apart lives for a brief blast of political grandstanding. As both governments play to the extreme right wing elements of their society, the same fears are expressed about a lack of migrant workers in sectors such as agriculture.
Demoralise and Demonize
In the policies of both governments we can see the same thread of demonisation and blame shifting with migrants at the epicentre of accusations of economic damage and resource hogging, when in reality they are responsible for very little of either. Equally we see blind target following and populism overriding common sense.
In the UK for example the NHS is heavily dependent on EU migrants for its very survival. The knock on effects of draconian immigration regulations has been to demoralise migrants from all social strata and skill levels and convince them to either leave the UK or not come here in the first place. Already we’ve seen reports of skilled workers leaving a country where they no longer feel welcome. Meanwhile tales of frankly baffling policy decisions about the status of people who have made a life in this country over many years continue to hit the headlines.
While politicians play on the fears and misconceptions of sections of our population in order to make personal gains, they risk not only destroying the lives of the migrants they plainly have no concern for, but also the future of our economy along with the very fabric of the society they claim they want to protect.
Whilst migration may need to be controlled, this doesn’t necessarily mean reductions for their own sake, especially when there is little or no evidence to suggest that migration is damaging and many reports that show it has a positive or negligible impact.
Moreover the immigration debate should be more than a numbers game. It should be a properly informed and balanced discussion that considers all the lives it touches. Not just those of the migrants themselves but also our own as individuals and members of a supposedly enlightened and multicultural society.
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