The HR director at an organisation I worked with a few years ago, commenting on people’s refusal to engage with change until the last minute, said: “When a decision is announced in this place it’s a signal for the debate to start.”
I was reminded of this when I read Heather Rolfe’s report on employer responses to Brexit, in which a number of employers commented that there had been more workplace discussion of the referendum since it happened than there was before it:
While referendum discussions were described as fairly limited before the vote, levels of interest were considerably higher after June 23rd. The surprise of employers was shared by employees and accompanied by a good deal of informal discussion, often focused on free movement issues. The manager of a hotel chain described how this included ‘concern around whether the people are wanted in the UK’. Some respondents felt it was ironic that interest in the referendum and in the EU was higher in the aftermath of the vote. The HR director of a food manufacturer stated:
‘My disappointment from people generally is if there’d been that level of discussion and engagement prior to the Referendum… perhaps the outcome might have been different’.
The shock among the employers surveyed is a reflection of how dependent they are on workers from the EU. The possibility of a reduction in their labour supply fills them with horror.
For over a decade, the UK economy has been built on the assumption that there is a massive pool of flexible labour available. Free movement rules and geographical proximity mean that the EU migrant workforce is highly responsive to changes in the economy. People come and go according to how many jobs are available. As the ONS migration statistics show, migration from the EU tailed off during the recession and then picked up again as the economy recovered.
At the same time, many of the EU migrants already here went home (or somewhere else) when the economy crashed and the work dried up.
While these charts only cover migration of more than a year, we also know, thanks to Michael O’Connor and Jonathan Portes, that there is a considerable churn of short-term migrants from the EU. The difference between long-term migrants and the number of NI allocations shows that a lot of people come to the UK to work for short periods.
As the Resolution Foundation’s recent report on migration and the labour market showed, the employment rate among EU migrants has tended to be higher than for the UK born, and is especially high for those from eastern Europe. Furthermore, their employment rate recovered more quickly after the recession. This is due, in part, to their mobility. When there is more work, more of them come. When there is less work, fewer come and more leave.
From an employer’s point of view this is great. There is a ready supply of labour, much of it highly qualified, that responds quickly to changes in demand. When you want more people they arrive. When you don’t need them any more they go home.
Around half of the net increase in employment since the recession has been due to EU migration.
Source: ONS EMP06, 17 August 2016
It is disingenuous of politicians to boast about the ‘jobs miracle’ while, at the same time, demanding a reduction in immigration to under 100,000. Many of these jobs would probably not exist without the ready supply of EU migrants. As the Resolution Foundation research shows, entire sectors are now dependent on labour from the EU and it is unlikely that UK-born workers will take these jobs over should they leave.
It is unlikely that native workers will totally fill the gap at current wage rates. Pay in these sectors averages £9.32 an hour, significantly below average native wages of £11.09. We know that lots of workers in these sectors are migrants from the EU ‘accession’ countries, whose average earnings are £8.33, £2.76 below that of natives. With employment at an all-time high it is unlikely that there are large numbers of natives either looking for work that will be attracted to these sectors given the low-wages on offer. Similarly these kind of wage rates are currently not sufficient to bring those not in the labour market into participation. It seems unlikely that the simple absence of migrants would be enough to change that situation.
Sarah O’Connor wrote about the potential impact of the end of free movement on the food industry:
Have you ever noticed how supermarkets run out of fruit salads on sunny days when everyone decides they fancy a picnic? No? That’s because they rarely do.
I never really thought about the mechanics behind this until I interviewed a man who supplied temp workers to a British company that made bagged salads and fruit pots. Demand would fluctuate according to the weather, but British weather is notoriously changeable and fresh products have a short shelf life. So the company would only finalise its order for the number of temps it required for the night shift at 4pm on the day. Workers on standby would receive text messages: “you’re on for tonight” or “you’re off”.
Most of this hyper-flexible workforce had come to the UK from Europe. “We wouldn’t eat without eastern Europeans,” the man from the temp agency said confidently.
And there are many good reasons why the locals won’t take over when they are gone.
[T]here are already plenty of jobs for British people. The proportion of UK nationals in work is at a near-record 74.4 per cent, higher than in 2004 when the “A8” eastern European countries joined the EU (which is when migration to the UK began to increase sharply). Torsten Bell, director of the Resolution Foundation think-tank, says the only significant pocket of unemployment left in Britain is among disabled people. “And we’re not about to send them out into the fields”.
There is also something about the nature of these jobs that makes them tough for UK nationals to do. These sectors usually require extreme flexibility from staff: the salad-baggers who wait for a text message to say they have work that night; the cleaners who cobble together piecemeal shifts at dusk and dawn; the fruit pickers living in caravans on farms.
When people say “migrants are doing the jobs that Brits are too lazy to do”, they are missing the point. These jobs may be palatable if you are a single person who has come to the UK to earn money as a stepping stone to a better future. But if you live here permanently, have children here, claim benefits here, they are not jobs on which you can easily build a life.
There you have it. British employers have access to a plentiful supply of Europe’s young, mobile and hyper-flexible employees. We have structured many sectors of our economy on the assumption that there will always be a steady stream of them.
Of course, the supply won’t disappear overnight. As the Social Market Foundation said, by the time we actually leave the EU, a majority of the EU migrants who are already here will have permanent residency rights.
But, as the tap is turned off, the hyper flexibility will disappear. If, in future, EU citizens are subject to the same immigration rules as those from outside the EU, firms that have come to rely on that flexibility will struggle to find workers.
An optimistic view is that this may lead to more investment in technology and training as employers find ways to produce the same with fewer people. Last month, I went to a Resolution Foundation conference on robotics. (The accompanying report is here.) The combination of economists and robotics experts produced some fascinating discussion. One scenario had the post-Brexit labour shortage kick-starting massive investment in technology, with robots picking crops in the Lincolnshire fields and the UK becoming a world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030.
The trouble is, such a re-orientation of our economy would require a complete change in British corporate culture, much of which has been short-termist and reluctant to invest for several decades. The more troubling possibility is that the reduction in EU migration will simply lead to an increase in the number of illegal workers. Should that happen the enforcement agencies would struggle. As the Resolution Foundation warns, their resources are already stretched as it is:
[T]he three existing labour enforcement units have a combined staff of less than 350 – equivalent to one enforcement officer for every 20,000 working age migrants.
These agencies could be given responsibility for enforcing and policing any temporary workers schemes that might be set up in the future, but they are already stretched carrying out their current duties. If temporary labour migration is not to become illegal migration there would need to be significant investment in the future.
Cutting off or even significantly reducing migration from the EU will be a shock to an economy that has been built on the assumption of a plentiful on-tap supply labour. As Sarah said, we have come to take for granted much of the work that the migrants do. We will only really we’ll only really understand that when they have gone.