Would you pay more for a punnet of strawberries if you knew they were picked by a Briton? Or would you go for the cheaper strawberries grown in a Spanish polytunnel?
This is the kind of choice we may soon have to make. Brexit will almost certainly put an end to the free movement of labour that has enabled British farmers to harvest and pack their crops cheaply. The same goes for hoteliers who need chambermaids and local councils looking for care workers.
New research by the Institute for Employment Studies has found that these employers show no intention of targeting or favouring foreign-born workers over UK-born workers when recruiting. Indeed our report for the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that nationality had little bearing on employers' recruitment decisions.
This runs contrary to the argument that employers, particularly at the low-skilled end, recruit migrants at the expense of UK workers. The majority of employers we surveyed said UK workers are just as likely to secure employment with them as foreign workers. Importantly, the responses from migrant and British workers in the same sectors were consistent with these reports, in that they reported almost no experience or knowledge of discriminatory recruitment practices among employers. Even though employers' views of migrant workers generally centred on their perceived low pay expectations, flexibility, strong work ethic and positive attitude to work, we found no significant evidence that this has any influence on their recruitment practices or how they treat their staff.
Instead of 'taking jobs', therefore, the research suggests that migrant workers are in jobs that UK workers are either unwilling or unable to do. This is nothing new; for a long time now, employers of migrant workers have consistently reported that their reliance on migrants is down to labour and skill shortages, and specifically, a difficulty in recruiting UK workers to low-skilled job vacancies. If sandwich factories and strawberry fields are full of migrant workers, in other words, it's largely because British workers don't want, or lack the skills to do, the work. Indeed, the top two reasons that employers gave for unsuccessful applications among UK workers were 'insufficient enthusiasm, motivation and energy' and 'lack of relevant knowledge and experience.' If nothing else, the research suggests that perhaps it is time to stop pretending that we have reserves of jobless Brits queuing up to accept jobs that are back-breakingly hard, with long hours and low pay.
The research also highlights just how dependent some sectors are on migrant workers, and just how much labour supply to these sectors could now be under threat from Brexit. In four of the five sectors we looked at (Food Manufacturing, Accommodation, Food Service and Social Care), Polish workers formed the largest proportion of foreign-born workers, and in three of those (Food Manufacturing, Accommodation and Food Service), EU countries constituted the top three countries of origin among foreign-born workers. The UK leaving the EU would therefore have an impact on the supply of staff in these sectors, as these workers may not be able, or feel welcome to work in the UK in the future. This raises questions not just about labour supply, but around what longer-term action the UK Government may need to take to ensure that UK workers are sufficiently skilled and incentivised to take up work in these sectors. It is likely that in the short term at least, any post-Brexit arrangements will have to make provision for low-skilled migrant labour, if these particular sectors are to survive.
Finally, this research counters the repeated claims for 'British jobs for British workers.' This is not just because of the weight of evidence: most economists will tell you that the idea that there are fixed number of available jobs in the economy for which migrants and 'host' workers must compete - the so called 'lump of labour fallacy' - does not hold true. Instead, immigration tends to increase the size of the economy and thus create more jobs (it is no coincidence that levels of immigration to the UK have peaked at the same time as employment levels have reached record highs). It is also because recruitment isn't about nationality for employers; it's about finding the best skilled person for the job, regardless of nationality. And isn't that the way it should be, in the interests of fairness and equality, if nothing else? Latest Government proposals to ask employers to report their numbers of non-British workers suggest otherwise.
The British public want a more mature and substantial discussion about immigration. We need to decide how much more we're prepared to pay for fresh fruit and vegetables, and whether our taxes should subsidise the farmers growing them. We have to work out how to attract more Britons into tough jobs like care work, where wages have stagnated or fallen as local councils pass on budget cuts. People are tired of the blame game and not impressed with debates tarnished by prejudice. We have some tough decisions ahead.
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