The Home Office document leaked to the Guardian suggests that, after Brexit, life will be tougher for those EU citizens coming to the UK to do lower skilled and lower paid work. While those in “high-skilled occupations” will be granted work permits for three to five years, those earning less than £18,600 a year will only be entitled to a 2 year visa and will no longer be allowed to bring their families to the UK.
The paper also calls for employers to give preference to UK workers and suggests that they should complete an “economic needs test” to confirm that no suitable applicants are available before recruiting EU citizens.
The document is not government policy and it is not yet clear who wrote it or even how many ministers or senior civil servants have seen it. Nevertheless, it tells us something about the thinking on which future immigration policies are likely to be based.
The paper seems to be based on the following assumptions:
- There will be a continuing supply of workers who want to come to the UK so much that they will be prepared to put up with whatever restrictions and inconvenience the government throws at them;
- There is a ready supply of UK workers able and willing to do the jobs that are currently done by EU migrants.
The first of these is highly questionable. The most recent immigration figures showed a sharp reduction in immigration from the EU. The falling value of our currency, better opportunities elsewhere, continuing uncertainty about their status and, most probably, the toxic atmosphere in the UK have led to a drop in the number of workers from the EU15 and EU8 countries.
As Jonathan Portes says, before we have even taken back control, a lot of EU migrants have decided to leave anyway.
We’re not being more selective. It’s the immigrants who are being more selective. It’s not that we’re choosing to have fewer immigrants, it’s that fewer immigrants are choosing to come here.
Will there be plenty of British workers waiting to fill their jobs? Probably not. The idea that there is an army of workless people in the UK is even more out-of-date. The UK-born working-age population is no longer increasing. According to some estimates it has already peaked. In a speech last month, Bank of England MPC member Michael Saunders pointed out that unemployment is at a 40 year low and the underemployment associated with the recession is falling rapidly too. He concluded that there is very little spare capacity in the labour market. This, combined with the slowing down of migration from the EU, is already causing labour shortages in the most migrant-dependent industries.
Chart by bank of England using BoE and ONS data. The three industry sectors with the highest share of employment of EU nationals are manufacturing, accommodation and food services, and administrative and support services.
The authors of the Home Office paper may argue that they are simply reflecting the views of a majority of voters. As British Future’s report published earlier this week showed, people tend to think that the economy needs high skilled workers but that the number coming to do lower paid jobs should be cut back. We like doctors and scientists but we are not so keen on low skilled workers.
Or, at least, we are not keen on low skilled workers when they are called low skilled workers. Give them specific job titles, though, and attitudes tend to change.
It is striking, however, that even within this category respondents are able to make pragmatic concessions to secure the economic gains of migration: two-thirds of people (66%) would be happy for the number of seasonal workers coming to the UK – to work on farms, food processing factories or in hotels, for instance – to remain at current levels (55%) or increase (11%). That view is also held by more than half (55%) of Leave voters in the referendum, and 78% of those who backed Remain.
Digging down into the detail of attitudes to different kinds of lower- skilled migration there is further nuance. While the pubic would like to reduce low-skilled migration overall, there are numerous exceptions. Attitudes soften when people are asked to give their opinion about people migrating to do a particular job – whether that is care work, fruit-picking or waitressing.
But apart from the care workers, construction workers, waiters and fruitpickers, what have low skilled* EU migrants ever done for us?
It’s all very well to say, as some do, that we managed before (whenever ‘before’ was) without all these EU workers. Maybe we did but many of the things we now take for granted are dependent on migrant workers. As the FT’s Sarah O’Connor said, we’d miss those unskilled migrants if they stopped coming:
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 if the rising cost of food and building work doesn’t worry you, the impact on the care sector should. Care homes are already experiencing recruitment difficulties. Lack of space in care homes has a knock-on effect on hospitals, which are themselves likely to suffer from staff shortages if EU migration is significantly reduced.
Just because these workers are low paid it doesn’t mean that they are not necessary. The government may be hell-bent on reducing the number of low-skill migrants but it isn’t telling us how it plans to deal with the consequences. People might not complain too much when they can’t get salad on a hot day but when their hospital is full and they can’t get help for their elderly relatives they will blame the government.
The government is under pressure to ‘do something’ about immigration. The trouble is, what it seems to be proposing is based on flawed assumptions and may well cause more problems than it solves. The fact is, we need these so-called lower skilled migrants as much as we need the engineers, scientists and doctors. But perhaps people won’t realise that until they have gone.
* The term ‘low skilled’ is contentious here. In a previous role I used to recruit care workers and I was amazed by their physical, mental and emotional resilience. If anyone thinks it is a low skilled job, I suggest they try being one for a day. However, it is these and the other jobs on this chart that will be designated low skill for migration purposes. What constitutes skill and whether it is high or low is a discussion for another day.