An issue raised by critics of migrants and migration is that foreign workers reduce wages in the UK, by willingly working for less.
When looking at the impact of EU migrants on wages in the UK, generally there is a short-term negative impact on the wages of the lowest paid UK workers, whilst higher paid workers usually benefit. In research led by University College London, the arrival of migrants equivalent to 1 per cent of the UK working-age population was shown as contributing to a 0.6 per cent decline in the wages of the lowest 5 per cent paid workers. As Britain restructures its immigration model for a post-Brexit nation, this issue appears as a timely concern.
Sceptics of this understanding explain how UK workers do not want the jobs taken on by migrants, such as fruit picking, which is arduous work and only pays an average of £8.00 per hour (the national living wage is £8.72). Hence, the work taken on by migrants is often referred to as ‘3D work’ — dirty, dangerous, and demeaning. Alongside this, the seasonal nature of such work prevents British students from working within this industry. For example, the strawberry picking season runs from May-July, a typical exam season for UK students. As Economics Professor Jonathon Portes admitted: ‘negative impacts of migration for native workers are, if they exist at all, relatively small and short-lived.’
‘To the considerable surprise of many economists, including me, there is now a clear consensus that even in the short-term migration does not appear to have had a negative impact on the employment outcomes of UK natives’.
—Jonathon Portes, ‘The economic impacts of immigration to the UK’.
Most recently, organisations such as The National Farmers Union, and care providers, have warned of how the absence of migrant workers in the UK could greatly hamper the running of agricultural and care services across the nation. At present, the NHS is short of around 9 per cent of staff. Of those currently employed by the service, 153,000 out of 1.2 million NHS workers report a non-British nationality. This figure equates to around a 13.1 per cent overseas working population, of those whose origin is known. As a report by the Home Office Migration Advisory Committee found in 2018, there is ‘no doubt that EEA migrants contribute more to the health workforce than they consume in health care’.
Despite these high figures, Brexit and the uncertain future of the British economy has led to a fall in foreign workers, with fruit farmers experiencing agricultural staff shortages. In 2017 alone, Britain experienced a 10 per cent drop in the number of seasonal workers coming from Europe.
As previously mentioned, the highest paid workers and UK businesses do generally benefit from the presence of migrants. This was proven in a 2015 government report that found ‘Skills held by migrant workers allowed businesses to expand their workforce, to fulfil existing contracts and to take on more work’. The report also revealed that migrant workers often came to the UK with superior experiences and qualifications to their British contemporaries, as ‘migrants added something above and beyond, or different to, equivalent UK applicants’. The contrasting migrant influence on low to well-paid workers also carries strong political expediency, significant to the Brexit referendum and its aftermath. Overall, 70 per cent of those with GCSE level qualifications or lower voted ‘leave’ in 2016. This can be linked to how the jobs taken on by migrant workers are commonly classified as ‘low-skilled labour’, the sector in which UK citizens with limited qualifications most often look for work.
Connected to the assumption that migrants lower the wages of UK workers, is the belief that they exploit the benefits system. However, a 2019 report by The Migration Observatory found that ‘unemployed migrants were less likely to claim unemployment benefits (18%), than UK-born unemployed workers (26%).’ As of February 2015, EU migrants represent 2.2 per cent of total benefits claimants. A previous study led by University College London in 2014 found that between 2001 – 2011, European immigrants from the EU-15 countries contributed 64% more in taxes than they received in benefits.’
Despite the evidence, many continue to blame migrants for a variety of economic problems faced by the UK. In a time of increased fiscal uncertainty, the reality that migrants help rather than hinder economic growth must be more widely recognised. The possibility of economic failure is, of course, scary. The financial fears bring opportunities for hateful rhetoric to circulate, reinforcing economic untruths and making life all the harder for the UK’s industrious migrant population.