One of the most unusual post-EU Referendum stories to date has been the news that UK slaughterhouses face a possible shortage of workers. As the BVA outlines, in the meat hygiene sector some 95% of veterinary surgeons graduated overseas. Britain, it seems, does not train enough of its own veterinary staff to cover for the number of animals it needs to kill. So the UK imports those workers, already trained, from Poland and Lithuania, and, fearful of racism on the streets of the UK since the summer, the veterinary industry fears they will not come to the UK to the same extent they used to.
It is a similar case in the NHS – a major fear was raised that without doctors and nurses from outside the UK, the NHS would collapse. Is it not slightly odd that the very beacon of Britishness, the NHS, could not survive without those not born or trained in the UK?
We have even heard similar about the UK road haulage sector. Rather than central and eastern European drivers forcing British drivers off the road, so the UK does not itself train enough truckers, and hence haulage firms have to go looking for labour in the rest of the EU.
All of this has led me to think that the UK has not just been a player in the world market for labour, but actually it is a parasite. As the veterinary, NHS and truck driver cases show, being able to call on workers from elsewhere in Europe has essentially allowed the UK to abdicate its responsibility as a state to actually train up the people it needs. Why actually spend the money on education and training when you can import the people you require? As most of the rest of the world speaks English as a second language anyway it makes that recruitment even easier.
However the UK, with its liberal labour market, its low taxes, and its relatively limited protection for workers, can at least create jobs and economic growth that keeps its labour market buoyant and workers move to fill the vacancies.
But all of this presents a series of challenges.
A rising population puts pressure on housing. The housing situation is especially acute in London and the South East where a booming economy has led to an increasing population and housing provision has not kept up with demand. The finger is often pointed at immigrants for causing this problem – as they logically tend to move where the work is. But if there are slaughterhouses, hospitals and haulage depots that need workers, can you fault the immigrants? No. But you can fault a housing market that cannot keep up with demand. Or you could instead seek to rebalance your economy away from the overheating South East.
What about the provision of services such as hospitals and doctors’ surgeries? Here too the argument falls flat – and not only because migrant labour is needed to staff those facilities. Provision of health services, and indeed nurseries and schools as well, has failed to meet demand when a population changes quickly – as it has in some satellite towns around London. What is the answer? To blame the people who have moved, or question why the UK state is incapable of providing the services its population requires? I’m inclined to think it is the latter.
Low wages and insecure employment are major issues in the UK – the working poor. Many of those people voted for Brexit and voice concerns that immigration means their wages are low, and both UKIP and parts of the Labour Party give voice to this argument (even though, as NIESR argues, even in non-skilled sectors, the impact of migration on wages is small). Yet here too there is a different solution – shift the economy away from low paid jobs in the service sector, and increase minimum wages. Every time any Brit consumes a cheap pizza at Zizzi (that pays its workers the minimum necessary) or buys a cheap sweatshirt at Sports Direct (that employs so many Polish workers on the minimum wage that Polish is a de facto language of the warehouses), so that person should wonder why their pizza or sweatshirt is so cheap. By contrast eating out in Copenhagen, for example, is very expensive, even for those earn well locally – because the wages of service workers are so high, meaning Copenhagen residents eat out less than their London counterparts do. It strikes me that Brits are uniquely unaware of how their own everyday behaviour maintains the low wages service sector.
So – for a party like Labour – these are the ways to deal with the challenge of immigration. Immigration does sometimes make things complicated, but it essentially shines the light on three areas of dysfunction of the British state, namely the UK’s inability to train the workers it needs, the UK’s dysfunctional housing market and over-heating of the South East, and the country’s low-wage service sector. However the last thing any responsible party should do is blame the individual people who move, or see restrictions on free movement within the EU as a solution to all of this.
Some of the people who claim their anti-immigrant sentiment is based on these sorts of issues might actually instead be motivated by the fear of the foreigner next door. Trying to appeal to those people is to make an appeal to racist prejudice – those voters ought to better go and vote for a racist party. As Jean Marie Le Pen once said, would you vote for the real thing, or vote for a copy? Stephen Kinnock, whose comments at a Progress event last night (tweets 1, 2, 3) provoked me to write this blog entry, would do well to pay heed to that. Labour would instead do well to address the issues I outline here, instead of using vocabulary that sounds like UKIP-lite.