‘British workers first’ policies may put the British economy last

A leaked Home Office document setting out a number of post-Brexit immigration proposals has set alarm bells ringing, not least among UK employers. Just when they thought sense was prevailing, that there would be no ‘cliff edge’ they now hear of plans to end free movement immediately after Brexit. And while once they perceived a welcome recognition of the importance of low skilled workers, as well as the highly skilled, in key sectors, they hear of proposals to drive down the number of these workers and allow them only temporary residency.

Employers don’t prefer to recruit migrants

As the Guardian report notes, the theme of the leaked document is ‘British workers first’ and it includes a statement that:

‘We are clear that, wherever possible, UK employers should look to meet their labour needs from resident labour.’

In fact, they already do. All the research evidence finds that employers don’t prefer EU migrants to British workers, though they value their higher levels of education and work readiness, their flexibility where demand for goods and services fluctuates and, most of all, their willingness to do unattractive work.

Recent NIESR and CIPD research found that the most common reason for employing EU migrants is difficulty recruiting British workers – cited by 35 per cent of employers in low-skilled sectors – while only one in 14 say they hire EU workers because they have lower expectations of pay and conditions than British workers.

Employers consistently say they would prefer to recruit more British workers, especially young people, but fail to attract them. I spoke to an employer only this morning who recently recruited 26 British workers to a food processing plant in Norfolk: after two weeks they had all left, saying they didn’t like the work.

This employer was doubtful that raising wage levels would help and was more than a little put out by the messages of the leaked report. Unemployment is now 4.4 per cent, the lowest since the 1970s and in some areas of the country it is almost zero. And the employment rate is 75 per cent, the lowest since comparable records began in 1971. The fuel tank of British workers is on reserve.

New immigration policy needs to include low skill roles

The shortages that lead employers to recruit EU migrants are often not skills based. There appeared to be a somewhat late, but welcome, recognition of this in David Davies’ message last December that future immigration policy will need to consider…

..”all levels of skill….what’s necessary for universities, what’s necessary for business, and what’s necessary for fruit picking.”

And EU migrants are needed for low skilled tasks such as fruit-picking, room cleaning and serving coffee, as well as the highly skilled roles they occupy. But as Martin Ruhs at the Migration Observatory points out, skills and shortages are ‘slippery’ concepts. Shortages of low skilled labour can affect business operations as much as higher skills gaps. And while employers can train for skilled and highly skilled roles, no such action is possible for low skilled ones.

They rely on being able to attract people who accept the nature of the work and low pay. Jobs in sectors such as social care, hospitality and food processing simply don’t attract sufficient applications from British workers. Successive governments have encouraged them to raise their aspirations above low skilled roles.

British teenagers aspire to work in education, arts and entertainment, IT and communications, not in hotels, factories and care homes. And difficulty in attracting British workers to low skilled sectors isn’t new – employers in the food industry in particular have long relied on migrants – they are 1 in 3 of the sector’s workers. It is unrealistic to think that these can be replaced by policies that put British workers first. Businesses will struggle to recruit, and British jobs will be at risk.

Policing immigration in the workplace

The document also includes proposals on enforcement – the introduction of ‘right to work’ checks in the workplace. Employers are expecting this, but what will alarm them is the proposal that criminal sanctions will be possible against companies and individuals.

New immigration policy will literally be policed in the workplace and, combined with complex policies and bureaucratic procedures, it’s a vision that will send chills down the spines of employers. And these won’t deter employers from recruiting EU migrants where they have little choice. They will simply add costs to businesses and services in what is clearly a challenging environment as Britain leaves the EU.

‘British workers first’ policies are likely to damage British businesses

The leaked document mistakenly suggests that immigration has benefited EU migrants more than it has benefited British workers. In reality, by meeting employers’ needs for unskilled and skilled workers, EU migrants have enabled businesses to expand, and create jobs for British workers.

This is a point that many employers will be making to the Migration Advisory Committee consultation, due to report next year. They will also be wondering about the point of the consultation when hard principles seem to have been established, driven by politics rather than economic and social reality.

By Dr Heather Rolfe, Associate Research Director for Employment and Social Policy. This piece originally featured on NIESR.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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  • Jonathan Kay

    “And the employment rate is 75 per cent, the lowest since comparable records began in 1971. ”

    … “highest”… ?

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