The blame game

20 Feb 09
CAREY OPPENHEIM | As unemployment rises, it is easy to point the finger at foreign workers.

As unemployment rises, it is easy to point the finger at foreign workers.But all the evidence shows that the two are unrelated: migrants are not taking jobs from local people or depressing wage levels

It is not difficult to imagine how people who are unemployed and struggling to find a job in the recession would react to last week’s newspaper stories of official employment figures. ‘Look at this: a quarter of a million more foreign workers in the UK, when a quarter of a million fewer British people are in work. It is madness. We need British jobs for British workers.’

Well, of course, it is rather more complicated than that, which is one of the reasons why some commentators questioned the wisdom of the Office for National Statistics in releasing the figures at such a sensitive time.

For example, the statistics might show that more Pakistani-born women who are now British citizens entered the labour market last year. Given the high level of unemployment among this group, such a trend, if it is true, would be very welcome — and would hardly count as ‘migrants’ taking ‘British jobs’.

Like all statistics, the ONS figures (which are subject to large margins of error anyway) contain within them a multitude of different stories, which researchers can only really interrogate once it is possible to drill down in detail. Certainly the figures do not show us that an army of migrants arrived in the UK last year and took jobs directly from British-born workers. The headline figures show us two different trends, not two related trends.

But the damage might have been done. When a recession bites it is understandable that those hit hardest look around for someone to blame. And it was always likely that migrants would be in the line of fire sooner or later. But, unlike bankers, for example, who probably had it coming, it is completely unfair to blame migrants for the economic mess we are in.

Of course, it is true that a lot have come to this country in recent years. And while a lot of people have been going the other way too, the net inflow — more than 250,000 in 2007 — is a big number. Even when times were good and there were plenty of jobs to go round, opinion polls showed the public was alarmed by such figures. But in economic terms, there is no evidence that there is any cause for alarm.

The Institute for Public Policy Research will shortly be publishing a paper to add to the substantial body of evidence showing that migrants have not taken jobs from local people or have depressed wage levels to any degree. They have come to the UK to fill skills gaps and to do jobs that we don’t want to do. In the process, they are adding to growth and spending money in the local economy, thereby helping to create jobs.

Moreover, migrants are often a dynamic economic force, bringing a strong work ethic and an entrepreneurial drive into the countries lucky enough to attract them. They don’t only pick fruit in the fields, they also start up businesses in the towns and cities. They work hard doing some of the dirtiest jobs in our economy, but they are also among the brightest and the best in our high-tech industries.

So we mustn’t fall into the trap, even in times of recession, of thinking that there would be more jobs for British-born people if we could keep immigrant numbers low. In previous economic downturns, migration has fallen as a natural consequence of a reduced demand for labour. There is already some evidence that migrants who can move easily, such as East Europeans inside the free labour market area of the European Union, are leaving the UK because the economic prospects are not as good as they were.

New figures from Ireland — which has experienced unprecedented immigration in recent years — show that immigration is falling as the republic experiences a downturn. But we will still need migrants in certain sectors, and we must ensure that our new systems of managed migration, such as the points-based system, retain sufficient flexibility so that they can respond in time to demand in an economic upswing.

All of this said, it is important that we make sure that the strong case for the benefits of migration is articulated in such a way that it can command public confidence. The economic crisis has changed the terms of debate in many areas of public policy, with a consensus emerging that we need stronger regulation and controls over the free markets.

As it happens, the UK already has a much more managed system of migration than it had a few years ago, with tight controls in place. The public will expect the government to know who is coming and why, to ensure that migration is economically beneficial or is for genuinely humanitarian reasons, and that infrastructure and services are in place to cope with migration patterns.

But exercising control shouldn’t translate into keeping numbers as low as possible. It doesn’t help anyone, including unemployed British-born people who can’t find a job, to play that sort of numbers game with migrants.

Carey Oppenheim is the co-director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

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