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By Philippe Legrain 2 COMMENTS

As the recession bites, unemployment soars, and protests against foreign workers proliferate, the publication of Office for National Statistics figures (pdf)
showing that the number of foreign-born people in work rose last year
would appear to confirm what opponents of immigration have been saying
all along: foreigners are taking "British" jobs. But the picture is far
more complex than that.

Note, for starters, that critics would
single out immigrants whatever the statistics showed. When immigrants
are in work, they are taking our jobs; when they are out of work, they
are a burden on the welfare state. Immigrants can't win: they are
damned if they do and damned if they don't.

Second, opponents
of immigration (and others, including myself) have previously pointed
out – correctly – that ONS migration figures were deeply flawed. In
particular, they did not accurately count the number of migrants from
central and eastern Europe, who as EU citizens can come and go freely.
If many of the Poles taking up jobs in Britain were not counted in the
boom times, they are unlikely to be counted if they have since lost
their jobs or left now we are in a bust. Foreign-born workers may thus
not be faring as well as the ONS figures suggest.

Third, the
category that the ONS has highlighted – foreign-born people – includes
British citizens born abroad and immigrants who arrived as children and
are only now entering employment after finishing school or university.
In fact, 40% of the UK's foreign-born workers are now British citizens.
On what grounds would the wildcat strikers and opponents of immigration
object to their employment?

The other category that the ONS
provides figures for – non-UK nationals – includes people who have been
in this country for decades but have never taken up British
citizenship. Again, what would be wrong if more of them were now
working? What we would really like to know is whether the number of
recent migrants in work is rising, but unfortunately those figures are
not available. We would also need more research into what is driving
the employment trends, which again we don't have.

Digging a
little deeper in the ONS statistics that we do have, one finds that the
175,000 rise in the number of non-UK nationals in work (which is
subject to a margin of error of plus or minus 111,000) comes from an
unexpected source. Employment among east Europeans has not risen, it
has increased (subject to big margins of error) among Indians (up
24,000), citizens of the 14 other countries that were EU members before
2004 (up 25,000), South Africans (up 27,000), and Pakistanis and
Bangladeshis (up 31,000). At the same time, figures released to
parliament last month show that the number of work permits granted to
Indians last year rose by 24,000 to 50,000, while those granted to
South Africans rose by 2,000 to 4,900 and those to Pakistanis by 1,700
to 3,300 (a mere 725 were granted to Bangladeshis). Together, this
suggests that nearly all of the rise in the number of South Africans
and Pakistanis in work last year is due to people who were already in
Britain finding jobs, not new arrivals. Since the employment rate among
Pakistanis, particularly Pakistani women, has historically been low, it
is surely a good thing that more of them are now working.

The bigger point, which bears repeating again, is that there is not a fixed number of jobs to go around,
so that making divisive statements about one group of people taking
jobs off another is not only invidious, it is also inaccurate. Everyone
who works creates jobs for others when they spend their wages as well
as in complementary lines of work. Women who work are not taking jobs
off men; black employees are not depriving white people of work; people
from outside London who work in the capital are not nabbing jobs off
those who were born there; and foreigners are not grabbing British
jobs. The debate we should really be having is how to create more jobs.
Investing more in our rickety infrastructure would be a good place to
start.

  1. Wendus says:

    I’ve looked through your blog.
    The immigration issue interests me and I have given it much thought, with conclusions.
    – Immigration is the reason that Britain continues to be a dynamic and changing society, which is a good thing.
    – We need to manage immigration so as to avoid massive population growth and overcrowding.
    – Too high immigration, which causes a sudden large increase in the labour supply, does indeed impact negatively on wages.
    What implications would this have for policy? Obviously, the issue is net migration. Yes, I do believe that immigration ought to be managed in accordance with a long-term population strategy. I’m in favour of sensible and sustainable immigration policy, from a socialist and environmentalist point of view. There can come a point where immigration is too high, which can damage social cohesion, as well as leading to unemployment and lower wage rates among those who are already in the country. What scares me is that the far-right is dominating the anti-immigration stance, and would like to completely stop immigration. which would mean that we would lose a lot of the benefits from foreign talent and diversity.

  2. Green Card says:

    From a humanitarian perspective, our fellow human beings, who migrate to support their families, continue to suffer at the hands of immigration policies that separate them from family members. This suffering should not continue.
    Now is the time to address this pressing humanitarian issue which affects so many lives and undermines basic human dignity. Our society should no longer tolerate a status quo that perpetuates a permanent underclass of persons and benefits from their labor without offering them legal protections.

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