Despite public perceptions that migrants have had a substantial and negative impact on wages, there is little quantitative evidence to date that suggests this. What is clear, however, is that migrants have increasingly come to dominate certain sectors and sub-sectors of the economy such as cleaning, construction and agriculture.
Previous qualitative research has identified a number of reasons why employers use migrant labour including:
• lack of applications from British workers
• shortages of British workers with appropriate skills
• migrants perceived superior 'work ethic' and their willingness to work for lower wages.
In the context of current high levels of unemployment among British workers, and with restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers due to be lifted by 2014, the dominance of migrant workers in such sectors is understandably of growing concern to policymakers.
Earlier this year, David Miliband spoke about the need to prevent British workers from being 'locked out of jobs' in industries such as construction and agriculture by monitoring the level of foreign workers employed by agencies as well as by providing better training for British jobseekers. At the recent party conference he spoke of his concern about British workers being under-cut by migrants who are paid less than the minimum wage and the need for better enforcement of employment rights. Improving the regulation of businesses in these sectors is clearly key to making this a reality and would also help to address the much wider issue of pay and working conditions in these sectors.
At present, much of the work in low-wage industries is temporary, insecure and, in some cases, exploitative. Recent research conducted by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research shows that the use of temporary agency workers and sub-contracted labour can facilitate labour exploitation, and even forced labour. In some such cases, agencies may make unfair deductions for accommodation or transport resulting in migrants being paid below the minimum wage. In others, particularly where supply chains are long and complex, insufficient monitoring of sub-contracted labour can result in more serious exploitative practices including tied accommodation and debt bondage. Such scenarios are closely linked to the fact that low-wage sectors are poorly regulated, with the exception of the food and agricultural industries which are regulated by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA).
The GLA has made significant strides in eliminating 'rogue' agencies from the food and agricultural sectors and in doing so have arguably made things more equitable for all businesses within these sectors. Extending and strengthening this model to all low-wage sectors would help to eliminate rogue employers and could be used to ensure fairer pay and working conditions. This in turn would attract more British workers, who in the past, may have eschewed such jobs. Existing workers within these sectors, many of whom are migrants, would also benefit.
In sum, this is not simply an issue of migrants versus natives but rather relates to a much broader issue of the need for fair pay and working conditions within these sectors. The first step towards achieving this is extending GLA-type regulation and enforcement across all low-wage sectors. Doing so will ensure that British workers remain attracted to these sectors long beyond an improvement in the current financial climate.