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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5 reader comments

  1. Ian Beggs says:

    “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.”

    It’s vague to say that the anxiety of the poorly paid is, on the one hand, just a feeling, and on the other hand that it amounts to a material interest. The one is less significant than the other. If it does constitute a material interest then it seems to me seriously to qualify the argument, often advanced on the liberal left, that immigration is good for the economy. Now, I’d love to believe that, but how (economically) good can something be if it is contrary to the interests of the low-waged? The low-waged are after all, a large and growing sector of the economy and a group with whom many others find themselves in sympathy on this score. I expect a majority of British workers would recognise this material interest and argue for greater controls.

    Isn’t low pay the real issue?

    You’re one of the good guys on this debate, Paul, so I ask this question just to clarify.

  2. Robert Reynolds says:

    Until the forces build and swirl, until the waves and surges overwhelm, most of us – top to bottom – have little time for anger or philosophy, even for ‘dire warnings’, too busy living, expectations – even if optimistic – already for ‘more of the same’.

    Even if there seems ‘no visible hope’ of peaceful progress, we can of course be grateful to those who speak out, the suffering in anger or desperation, the social activist or reporter in honest conscience: but if ever there is to be ‘real hope’, it will be in shared recognition of cost in democratic deficit.

    Whatever else we share, news of wider deeper exclusion or exploitation, news of ever more troubled conscience, news of whistle-blowers and late confessions or Cabinet paper revelations, we should be sure to mention the alternative to rule by fear and greed, our rule instead by conscience, in equal partnership.

    However distant liberation might seem, however deep the dungeon, if chances are to be taken to save people and planet, it is absolutely essential that we – or if so lucky our children – should come to understand the key to positive peace, to real prosperity, and to our survival, in real democracy.

    Even if unobserved, change is always on-going: but with respect to ‘the labour market’ and to ‘local identity’, change – given due representation – need not be of net harm, never – in equal partnership – ‘overwhelmingly’ adverse. Thus, in a settled democratic Europe, there would be no need for migration except toward democratically agreed service, or allowed venture, for the benefit of all.

    Perhaps as at the BBC, even in Channel 4, there are limits to honesty and survival in honesty, such as to preclude duly sustained public service. That said, reading between the lines, after John Ebdon: ‘if you have been, thanks for trying’.

  3. Robert Reynolds says:

    “We are surrounded by ideological viewpoints”, and yet are severely deprived.

    Even in the offerings of public service broadcasting, in such a flagship programme as BBC Radio-4’s In Our Time, the danger so often arises of ‘run-through’, of such insufficiency of time or excess of ambition as to tempt false assurance of navigational insight. Take the Medici, interestingly discussed by Melvyn Bragg and company in the Boxing Day broadcast, with further reflection in Melvyn’s blog, http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio4/posts/In-Our-Time-The-Medici.

    The power of the Medici – for good or ill – came from banking, more precisely from the need of others to be able to trade across borders and to save or attract capital for a mix of purposes, personal, commercial and political. While our Interest in the Medici naturally will turn to ‘human stories’, to intrigue and conflict, and to role in architectural, artistic and political development, we should spare a thought for money as servant or master in the direction of society today. Must our need of ‘a strong state’ dictate tolerance of inequality, making of any republicanism, any call to trust in ‘constitutional monarchy’, or any avowed hope of ‘democracy’, a sham?

    Thinking about the role of money for the health of human society, of the global economy and all sections of the economy, perhaps the most important provision – in sustained neglect made obvious too late to all – is one that in the short-term is easily overlooked or by narrower interests obstructed, namely the equalisation of our spending-power in order for democracy to work, in fact to exist. This basic need unavoidably raises questions against traditional forms of income distribution, from ‘pay-bargains’, ‘electoral-bribes’ , ‘proceeds of usury’ and other forms of gambling, not least the frankly blue-collar criminal or the subtle but worse white-collar, financial fraud or political false-prospectus.

    Interestingly, the same provision of spending-power equality is required to meet another critical need, that of money circulation – as obvious to many already – to sustain aggregate demand (preferably of stable pattern) in order to keep all of us either in gainful productivity or in supported dignity (in upbringing and education for the security of future productivity; or towards pensions and insurances for security of current productive focus). In whatever our government-agreed accounting period (perhaps a month or two or three), any ‘excess unspent money’ – above an agreed universal limit for the individual citizen-account – must leave the accounts of those who have over-received and / or under-spent, to be returned to circulation – in the next period – as part of the general equal distribution.

    That both political and economic imperatives point to our shared strong interest in genuine equal partnership (essentially in agreed equality of income-share and so of access to ‘market direction’ in our social production of ‘goods and services’, the political included), increasingly will provide incentive for the recognition as such – and then the sweeping away – of largely irrational current practices, and so for our liberation from the plethora of anomalous, distorting and destructive effects that cumulatively have dictated our long experience of fear and greed, boom and bust, conflict of interest and corruption, arms production and war, our overall misdirection toward species if not planetary oblivion.

  4. Taylor Abraham says:

    Just out of curiosity, how many foreigners are employed in this company?

  5. Penfold says:

    Well, I’m terribly sorry, but the Bulgar Foreign Minister has missed the point, Bulgars are foreigners, we have not yet reached that nirvana, whereby Europe, is a regional EUSSR.
    If you aint British, have our values, our ethos, then frankly you are an alien.
    Additionally, we have not prevented Bulgars from buying land or property in the UK, which isn’t quite the situation in Bulgaria.
    Oh dear, so much for the single market, et al.

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