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Most Romanians and Bulgarians already had full access to benefits before 2014

New research reveals most Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK were unaffected by the “transitional controls” in place…

Destination benefits? Not quite. Pedro Aragão

New research reveals most Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK were unaffected by the “transitional controls” in place until the start of this year.

According to much of the media, these controls were the only thing holding back floods of migrants. Even now, nearly two months after Romanians and Bulgarians gained full access to the UK’s labour market, the controls are still in the news.

The Telegraph reports numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK reached a “record high” last year, even before controls were removed. The Mail meanwhile claims “one in ten new roles” created last year went to migrants from the two countries.

But what if it turns out most Romanian and Bulgarian migrants were already unaffected by the controls? That is the conclusion of research carried out by the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory which builds on an article previously published by The Conversation on the existence of benefits tourism.

When the two nations joined the EU in 2007, richer countries were worried about a possible influx of low skilled migrants. Temporary restrictions – “transitional controls” – were therefore put in place to limit Romanians and Bulgarians' access to certain jobs, primarily those in agriculture and food processing. Access to the benefits system was also limited.

However, these controls did not apply to self-employed workers. Oxford researchers have now found that, last year, 59.1% of working migrants from the two countries were self-employed. That compares with just 13.9% of UK nationals.

Self-employed status gave Romanian and Bulgarian migrants the same access to tax credits, housing benefits and so on as any other self-employed EU migrant in the UK, even while the transition controls were still in place. Unlike his or her fellow nationals with a single employer, a self-employed Romanian enjoyed the same status in the UK as a freelance worker from France or Italy.

But this doesn’t mean things were rosy, or that the “benefit tourism” stories were right all along. In fact, quite the opposite.

As the Migration Observatory report makes clear, the transition controls meant registration as self-employed was “less of a choice than a necessity” for Romanians and Bulgarians coming to work in the UK. Controls may have been easily evaded, but they seem to have simply pushed migrants into what the Romanian Embassy called last year a “grey area of the labour market”.

Liliana Harding, a lecturer in economics at the University of East Anglia, describes the creation of “a secondary labour market, where (self-employed) workers are deprived of various social and residence entitlements.” It may have also led to lower wages, as self-employed workers can avoid minimum wage rules.

This isn’t a great position to be in. “Migrants are easily exploitable”, points out Jon Fox of the University of Bristol, “but they work hard, and they pay in more than they take out.”

Carlos Vargas Silva, one of the author’s of the Migration Observatory’s analysis recognises public concern over what the end of transitional controls might bring. “But” he says, “these figures show that limits to welfare access included in the transitional controls did not affect the majority of Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK since 2007.”