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The truth behind the ‘migrant work ethic’

The truth behind the ‘migrant work ethic’


The European Union was expanded back in 2004 to include the eight nations of Central and Eastern Europe, known as the “A8”. Immediately afterwards, the United Kingdom was one of only three member states to allow full access to workers from these countries.

It was a decision influenced by the low projected figures of migration associated with this EU expansion – around 13,000. As it turned out, this was a huge underestimate. Over 600,000 citizens from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia registered to work in the UK between 2004 and 2007.

With such large and unexpected levels of migration came inevitable tensions. Some British workers and politicians blamed migrant workers for driving down wages, or even keeping natives out of jobs.

Issues surrounding this wave of migration now dominate public political debate. Brexit negotiations, party manifestos, and general election campaigns all seem to mention migrants sooner rather than later. And this looks likely to continue, as the argument continues over whether migration is good or bad for the UK.

One thing employers in the UK do seem to agree on is that migrant workers work hard. Businesses report anecdotal evidence of hard working Poles, a phenomenon broadly described as the “migrant work ethic”.

Protests for and against immigration. PA

Indeed, evidence suggests that employers in the UK will often recruit workers on the basis of their nationality, especially in lower-skilled roles where employers tend to value a good work ethic over anything else. This of course has negative implications for native workers, as they may be missing out on jobs simply because their nationality is not synonymous with working hard.

But is this migrant work ethic quantifiable? Can we measure it? This is what we set out to investigate.

With large scale data from the UK Labour Force Survey and using absence from work rates as a measure of work ethic (as is commonly done by economists), we did indeed find strong evidence of a superior work ethic among people from A8 countries. Other things being equal, A8 migrants in their first year of residency in the UK are over three times less likely than a British worker to be absent from work.

More surprisingly, perhaps, we also discovered that this superior work ethic is temporary. In fact, it lasts approximately two years. After spending more than 24 months in the UK, migrants behave no differently to their native counterparts.

So why do migrants exhibit this (initial) enhanced work ethic? Some might argue that it is only the most productive who have the get-up-and-go to migrate in the first place. It is also likely to be a reaction to the significant challenges facing newly arrived migrants as they start to navigate the UK labour market.

Learning a new language takes time, but potentially more problematic is that British employers typically don’t value qualifications and work experience obtained outside of the UK.

This is partly a result of both the diversity of qualifications across different educational systems, and also the lack of information provided to businesses because of the initially low predictions of how many migrants would enter the UK.

Great(er) expectations

This has tended to mean that a highly-skilled, highly-qualified migrant workforce has ended up in low-paying, low-skilled jobs. Perhaps then this work ethic is an attempt by migrants to try and persuade their employers how valuable they are, so they can be redeployed into higher-paying, higher-skilled roles which more adequately suit their education and experience.

Field work. PA

But why then is this work ethic only a temporary phenomenon? Our research shows that over time, migrant wages do tend to increase and converge with those of natives. As this happens, their reliance on this persuasion mechanism will tend to diminish.

Alternatively, this migrant work ethic may simply be a consequence of these migrants assimilating into the UK’s higher income economy. While newly-arrived migrants are typically found in low-paying roles, these wages will still tend to be above expectations and what they are used to receiving in their home countries.

What do we do when our wages are higher than we expect them to be? According to economists, we work harder – it’s a sort of gift-exchange mechanism in which we respond with higher levels of effort.

So the “migrant work ethic” is real and it is measurable. But it is also a temporary phenomenon. In a strong example of migrant integration, as migrants improve their understanding of pay structures in the the UK, and their wage expectations start to adjust, so too will their effort.

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