2 Jan 2014

Why the immigration debate throws up difficult choices

Despite dire predictions in the tabloid press we have not yet been deluged with Bulgarian and Romanian migrants.

However, their new-found access to the UK labour market will be felt over time. Labour Force Surveys show recent migrants clustered in the lowest-skilled jobs: processing plants and personal care.

There are 4.4m foreign-born workers in a workforce of just over 30 million, and the statistics show this non-UK born workforce growing at more than twice the rate of the British born (2.6 per cent, compared to just over 1 per cent per year).

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I’ve been speaking to a firm today that went out of its way to hire people from the local community: the hi-powered wireless provider Optimity.

Its boss told me they were motivated by a mixture of social concern and the view that, if you only go out and hire the people everybody else is hiring, you can miss the unique and specific dynamism on your doorstep.

I spoke to one young man who’d almost given up looking when he landed an apprenticeship in London’s Silicon Roundabout:

“I’d never heard of it,” he tells me, adding, “it’s still strange to be coming to work in a suit, when I compare it to what my friends in east London are doing”.

We’re surrounded by ideological viewpoints on migration: for and against.

I’m struck by how difficult it is to reconcile the interests.

In a global labour market there will always be people in the UK – lower skilled and lower paid workers – who feel they can’t compete with incoming migrants.

For them, there’s a material interest in reversing the globalisation of the labour market.

For those who get the upside – people who need personal care, employers who’ve opened packing and agricultural businesses that can only be run with migrant labour, the NHS etc – it all looks different.

The point is, we have choices. If you don’t want to live in a country that’s a magnet for low-skilled people, then don’t sign treaties that give free movement of labour with countries where they live. And maybe make it harder to set up businesses whose only rationale is to pay people below the minimum of what an ordinary worker could survive on.

That would mean breaking an economic habit that seems ingrained in the low-value end of UK business. But it might be more constructive than deploying a horde of reporters to chase planes arriving from Transylvania, and stigmatising thousands of hardworking people with every legal right to be here.

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