In the UK last weekend for my partner’s birthday and it struck us that through the whole day of our arrival, from airport snack bar to evening restaurant, not one person out of all those who served us food, coffee or snacks was British.
Cue the Brexit Tinkerbells on the LBC phone launching into their standard rant of “It’s all those bloody Poles and Romanians stealing our jobs”. I can also picture the headlines in the ‘Daily Mail’ about calculating immigrants coming here to claim our lucrative in-work benefits.
With the UK employment rate now at its highest level since 1975, it doesn’t seem possible that hoards of Eastern Europeans are condemning British workers to the misery of long term unemployment by stealing anything. The same Eurosceptic Tory MP’s who jeer at opponents of their Brexit dream are the ones in the front of the queue at PMQs to praise the government’s jobs miracle. How can EU migrants simultaneously be contributing to the wonderful performance of the British economy in reaching almost full employment and yet be responsible for marginalising the native workforce within it?
What you don’t read in the ‘Daily Mail’ (but you do in the ‘Financial Times’) is that the food industry is utterly dependent on EU workers – in some sectors to the tune of 75% – to maintain current staffing levels. One chief executive of a food management company in Nottingham scoffed at the notion that curbing EU migration would liberate trapped opportunity:
“There isn’t a pool of unemployed workers sitting there waiting for the EU workers to go back, ready and able to take up these jobs.”
Or the CEO of a hotel in Oxfordshire:
“One thing I can say for sure, you can phone any publican, pizzeria manager, or random dude running a catering company, and you’ll get the same answer. We never turn away British people for jobs. It doesn’t happen. It’s a cheap headline that is simply not true. Restricting foreigners will not mean more jobs for locals.”
And the same is true in agriculture, where, according to ‘Farmer’s Weekly’ an astonishing 65% (ONS stats) of the workforce is from the EU and – critically – that figure does not include seasonal workers who are blithely assumed to be the only ones affected. Recent research by Oxford’s Migration Observatory for the Financial Times, found that 96% of EU workers currently employed in agriculture would fail current UK visa requirements. That would cause chaos.
Which brings us to the ‘Daily Mail’ and its obsession with migrant workers qualifying for tax credits. ONS data shows that working age, non-UK EU nationals have a higher employment rate than both non-EU nationals and UK nationals, at 78% compared with 61.7% and 74.4%, respectively.
And yet the Mail regularly vents its spleen on foreign workers receiving the same tax status as their UK counterparts – even though, as we have seen, if they weren’t doing those jobs, there wouldn’t be a local replacement.
In other words, we expect people to come from other countries to do manual and often demanding low-skilled work, on zero hour contracts with minimal benefits and low wages AND deprive them of their entitlement to in-work benefits. As Boris Johnson himself might say, “I’m sorry, old boy, but that’s just not cricket”.
Instead of targeting its outrage on the EU workers who support the UK economy, the real focus ought to be on government policies that have hard wired the economy for low wage, low skill and low productivity. Why are taxpayers having to fork out billions to top up the wages of low paid workers whilst chief executives take home 140 times the average worker and shareholders rake in dividends? In 1970, £10 of every £100 of profit was distributed to shareholders: today, under intense pressure from short-term owners, companies pay out £70. Could this be one of the reasons why Britain is 18% adrift of the G7 nations for labour force productivity?
Brexit supporters claim that leaving the EU will end access to cheap labour and allow the government to develop independent strategies for growth and a higher-skilled workforce. That’s may well be true to some degree except that Britain will always need access to mobile, flexible, relatively inexpensive labour, so nobody should be taunted about having to “go home” any time soon. On the contrary, Poles, Romanians, Czechs, Spaniards, Italians, French, German and citizens of all 27 EU states will need to be welcomed with open arms and minimal friction in order to keep huge sectors of the British economy functional.