Union City Views

Guest post by Dr Greg Thomson. Greg is is the National Development Manager for vulnerable and migrant workers at unison, one of the UK’s largest public sector unions.

Migration policy is too focused on the number of migrants coming to the UK. Insufficient regard is paid to how migration policy interacts with other policy objectives or how those policies impact on migration. Worryingly this preoccupation with numbers may help to demonise and scapegoat migrants at a time of rising unemployment. A more rational joined up approach is needed.

Policy should aim to end division in the workplace by ending exploitation and protecting basic rights for all workers. Where there are labour market skill shortages which cannot be filled from the resident labour force or Europe, government should allow the use of migrant labour to ensure commerce and services are not damaged, but should also vigorously promote training for the resident workforce to acquire the necessary skills to fill those skills gaps.

Current policy and its origins

Existing concerns about migration are likely to be exacerbated by rising unemployment. There is a danger that indigenous workers will believe that migrants are taking jobs from them or keeping wages down; even though all the evidence is to the contrary. Migration has helped create jobs. But for most people this is so counter intuitive that arguments about migrants creating jobs have little traction. Nor can the debate about migration simply be dismissed as racist; people of all races have genuine concerns.

The idea of capping migration from outside Europe owes its genesis to a proposal for so called ‘balanced migration’ developed by Migration Watch. Only by balancing migration, that is to say by reducing net migration to practically zero, it is argued, can the pressure on our public services be alleviated and the population kept below 70 million. Government rhetoric has often reiterated this argument as justification for the cap.

There are just too many people

Simply taking a snapshot and projecting migration rates since 1991 into the future is misleading.  It is important to consider the trends that will influence migration. Government figures for net migration include European migration, yet bizarrely the projected migration figures ignore the current steep decline in the European population brought about by birth-rates well below replacement rate. The World Bank has estimated that by 2050 there will be 66 million less people of working age across the whole of Europe. This means that immigration from Europe will decline, and indeed emigration to Europe may well increase. People will go where the work is.

Capping migration in an effort to keep the population below 70 million by keeping workers whose skills are needed out of the country is extremely short sighted. European population trends will cause net migration to decline, without the need for artificial caps and without damaging the country’s economy.

Addressing the real demographic issues

Rather than setting up 70 million as some sort of totemic population limit it would be far more sensible to develop government policy to deal with the profound demographic changes taking place now. Ideally what is needed is a spread of population across all ages such that there are sufficient people of working age to support those who are not of working age. Government are already encouraging people to work longer to accommodate our aging population. There also needs to be a recognition that we need to support people having children, so that we do not end up with population declining too steeply.

At the other end of the equation careful thought and planning needs to go into looking after an increasingly aging population.  By 2030 the UK will need an additional 600,000 care workers. Currently some 16% of care workers are migrants. With an ageing and declining population across Europe, the current policy of stopping the recruitment of skilled care workers from outside Europe begs the question ‘who will look after the aging population in this country?’

A cap on migration will not protect public services, it is not necessary to limit population, but it will damage public services and make it harder to deal with important demographic changes. Worse it gives the impression that migration is a threat without in any way dealing with the real concerns people have about job security and pay.

The paradox of public services

Paradoxically while additional people coming to this country as migrants may generate additional demand for some public services; public services also depend upon migrant workers. Migration has been crucial to the provision of public services. Public service employers have been some of the most vociferous in arguing that a cap on skilled migrants from outsideEurope will affect them adversely. They are right, public services cannot relocate to another country or rely on intercompany transfers to get around skill shortages in this country, as many commercial firms can. Far from safeguarding public services; the cap will damage public services.

The economic effects of migration and the cap

Employers and unions have reached a rare consensus in arguing that restricting migration to fill skills shortages puts jobs at risk in this country. International companies that cannot get the skilled workers they need in this country may well relocate abroad. Where firms cannot relocate the danger is that they will operate at less than optimum level because they will have skills gaps. The cap makes no sense economically.

Under the points based system (PBS) long term immigration for work purposes is broadly speaking restricted to those areas where there are skill shortages. Tying skills training policy to migration policy aimed at filling skills gaps will help to allay people’s concerns over immigration and deliver a coherent labour force policy.

There is a perception that foreign workers are taking jobs at lower rates of pay or on worse terms and conditions. Sometimes these concerns are overblown as exemplified by the Lyndsey Oil Refinery dispute. But if government wants to address public concern about migration then concerns about undercutting need to be addressed. Ending exploitation and enforcing basic rights for workers is fundamental to this. It creates a level playing field and promotes workplace cohesion.

One of the responses to migration ought to be better enforcement of the minimum wage and other statutory employment conditions. Expanding the ambit of the Gangmasters Licensing regime would end much of the exploitation and end some of the ethnic apartheid that goes on in some workplaces.

In short a different approach is needed. Attempts to lower net migration by capping will do more harm than good. It does not address the real concerns of the public over jobs and wages. The debate over policy is poorly served by definitions of migrants that are confusing and include people coming to this country over whose entry the government has no control. 

Immigration policy should be part of a wider labour market policy. First of all it should aim to end division in the workplace by ending exploitation and protecting basic rights for all workers. Secondly where there are labour market skill shortages, firms should be free to fill them from overseas, but government policy should promote training for the resident workforce to acquire the necessary skills to fill those skills gaps wherever possible.

About jcwi

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is a key campaigning voice in the field of immigration, asylum and nationality law and policy. It is completely independent from government funding, remaining entirely free from government influence. View all posts by jcwi

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