Low-skilled migrant workers are easy targets. Politicians of all parties talk about the need to reduce their numbers, even when acknowledging the need for Britain to continue to attract highly-skilled workers to remain competitive internationally. There are already strict controls on low-skilled workers from outside the EU, but EU workers continue to benefit from freedom of movement, so low-skilled European workers are a subject of lively political debate. They are unfairly blamed by some for driving down wages, and for taking jobs which British workers would otherwise be able to take. Their presence in Britain is cited as a major cause of the vote to leave the European Union – and Brexit provides an opportunity to restrict their numbers further.
But who are the low-skilled EU migrant workers, and what do they do? Global Future’s new report ’100,000 carers missing’ published today, focuses on one important group of them: workers in adult social care. These are the people who help our elderly and disabled loved ones get dressed in the morning, cook for them, give them company, help them get out and about, and provide them with more control over their lives. Some work in residential care homes and others in the community, supporting people to stay in their own homes and live as independently as possible.
They are essential to the people they care for, and to the wider community too, providing relatives with vital support and often enabling them to continue to pursue their own careers and support their families. We need them.
More than 200,000 social care workers in England – nearly one in five – are from overseas, with a growing proportion coming from the EU. Without them our social care system, already severely overstretched, would collapse completely. And yet there is too little political challenge to the idea that we should stop them coming, and that those who are already here should leave.
Our report makes the case for changing that consensus. It shows not only that we need low-skilled social care workers from overseas, but that ending freedom of movement after Brexit would have devastating consequences for our elderly and disabled people.
We already know that the number of non-EU overseas social care workers is falling, as a direct result of the imposition of strict controls on their ability to come to the UK. In recent years this fall has been compensated for by EU migrant workers, while the number of British workers taking jobs in social care has risen far more slowly.
If freedom of movement ends when Britain leaves the EU, we can expect the number of overseas workers in adult social care to plummet. Our analysis suggests that there would be more than 100,000 fewer people working in the sector by 2026 than we would expect if freedom of movement continues – at a time when our population is ageing and we will need more people in the adult social care sector to care for more elderly and disabled people.
Stopping freedom of movement would, according to our analysis, be a major contributory factor in the ratio of over-75s to care staff rising by over 26% between 2017 and 2026 – from 3.4 to 4.3. The care system – and the people who depend on it – would not be able to cope with such an increase.
In the social care sector, foreigners are not taking jobs from British workers or driving their wages down. In fact, there are 90,000 unfilled social care vacancies, and the pressure on wages comes not from competition for jobs but from years of squeezed local authority budgets – with cuts imposed by central government – which make it impossible for social care providers to pay more and which are already forcing several out of business. Social care needs proper funding, and its workers need better wages. But blaming EU workers for the state of the system is ignorant at best and cynical at worst.
Politicians of all parties – and especially ministers – need to confront reality, not duck it for the sake of easy headlines. They need to take up the argument advanced in this report: social care needs freedom of movement to continue, because it needs the European workers free movement has delivered. If our politicians disappear from this debate, our carers will disappear too.
Peter Starkings is managing director of Global Future