It will have come as little surprise to anyone who has recently visited a UK
pub, hotel, restaurant, shop, garage, construction site or factory shop floor
that there has been a huge influx of East European immigrants into the UK since
the expansion of the European Union in May 2004.
Home Office figures show that 427,000 have enrolled on the official worker
registration scheme since then, although this may be a conservative estimate.
However, word on the street is not the tabloid-fuelled anger, contempt and
xenophobia that one might expect. Instead, most people comment on work ethos and
how immigrants, Poles in particular, could teach our ‘Generation Why’ a lesson
or two in ‘putting your back into it’.
Recent Tenon Forum research has shown that small and medium-sized enterprises
are backing the big firms in wanting the door opened wider. Some sectors appear
to be employing more immigrant labour than others, in part because of their work
ethos, but also because they can’t find the skills they need locally.
In farming, there is some sound reasoning behind employing foreign labour. A
much larger proportion of East European workers arrive with a working knowledge
of agricultural practices plus the drive and stamina to undertake
labour-intensive work like soft fruit picking.
The more demanding character of UK school leavers and an ongoing decline in
agricultural colleges in the UK means that few Britons are equipped or prepared
to do this.
The minimum wage in the UK is an attractive prospect for immigrant workers.
For us, it’s good for reducing a perpetually increasing UK skills gap.
Predictably the tabloids have been shocked by the announcement of 427,000
legal immigrants and the government has decided it’s time to introduce a quota
for the potential new EU members, Bulgaria and Romania.
Is this letting politics get in the way of sound economics and solid market
research? Quite possibly. Being one of very few countries in Europe with an open
door policy, the UK has enjoyed high growth and low inflation. Foreign labour is
helping us fill a skills gap that our own native workforce can’t.
The government should beware of pandering to tabloid power and start
listening to British businesses. If they’re happy and the economy stays buoyant,
good things follow.
Chris Monnington is director of Tenon Rural Services
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