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Post-Brexit immigration policy that shuts out low-skilled migrants won’t suit anyone

Much of the debate around low-skilled migration is built around misunderstandings. Amani A/Shutterstock

With the spotlight on the date and terms on which the UK leaves the EU, the issue of immigration has paled into relative insignificance. The prime minister, Theresa May, has repeatedly stated her intention to end the free movement of people within the UK. Yet levels of public concern about immigration are falling and the public seem less worried about free movement than they were at the time of the 2016 referendum.

Meanwhile, new post-Brexit immigration policies are waiting in the wings in the form of proposals put forward in a government white paper published in December 2018. Now, a new collection of research papers by prominent immigration researchers published by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) has taken an in-depth look at some of the proposed measures and at their underlying rationale.

The papers bring into stark relief a fundamental weakness at the heart of the immigration debate: the failure to recognise the more nuanced perspectives of employers, the public and migrants themselves.

The public debate on immigration typically depicts employers as favouring migrants for reasons of cost and superior “work ethic”. The public is usually seen as opposed to all but highly skilled migration, while migrants themselves are viewed as having little aspiration beyond low-skilled work.

These three misunderstandings have led to the policy proposals in the recent white paper, which place tight limits on low-skilled migration which could considerably reduce EU migration. The policies will prove particularly problematic for employers in lower-skilled sectors – but evidence also suggests that they aren’t what the public want either.

Employers’ motivations

Research consistently finds that migrants meet skill and labour shortages in key economic sectors. It’s often assumed that some employers prefer to recruit EU migrants and that they do so to undercut the pay of locals and as an alternative to training. But research by labour market expert Anne Green finds employers tend not to target migrants explicitly, but do so from necessity. Jobs in sectors such as social care, hospitality, food processing, warehousing and construction simply do not attract sufficient applications from British workers.

To attract more interest from British applicants requires more than improving pay, but also a fundamental change in business models which currently place a premium on flexibility and keeping costs down. In sectors such as social care it requires long-term planning and financial support so that employers can pay sustainable wages.

Public attitudes

The white paper also makes few provisions for low-skilled migration. Those it does propose appear to specifically aim at addressing what are seen as public concerns about immigration. Here’s where misunderstanding public attitudes comes in. As research my colleagues and I have done finds, the public wants migrants who make a contribution, loosely defined in both economic and social terms. Our surveys and focus groups of 105 Leave and Remain voters in Sittingbourne in Kent in the South of England found that they are less concerned about skills and more interested in the contribution a migrant makes, which can include working as a fruit picker or waiter.

For the public, “contribution” and “control” are key concepts, with the public favouring control to restrict the number of migrants who do not “contribute”. These are often characterised as those attracted to the UK to claim benefits or to commit crime, rather than to make any economic contribution. The public is much more relaxed about low skilled migration than is often assumed.

Motivations of migrant workers

If implemented, the proposals are likely to lead to lower levels of net migration. This is where the perspective of migrants comes in – and it’s the one the least is known about. Evidence shows that EU migrants from Central and Eastern Europe are concentrated in lower-skilled jobs but it’s not really known why.

New work by UCL migration researcher Alexandra Bulat finds that EU migrants often see low-skilled work as temporary, an opportunity to gain experience in the UK labour market and to improve language skills. Migrants are likely to have aspirations both to use their existing skills and to progress within the UK labour market, rather than being attracted to the UK by the prospect of low-skilled work at higher pay than in their home countries.

To the UK’s loss, the under-utilisation of migrants’ skills has received no attention from those who make immigration policy. Instead, low-skilled migrants are seen as economically dispensable because they make a smaller fiscal contribution than higher-skilled migrants.

UK net migration by citizenship. Office for National Statistics - Long-Term International Migration

The perspective of migrants is especially important when it comes to understanding the likely impact of the end of free movement. Since the 2016 EU referendum, net migration has fallen to levels last seen in 2009, yet the UK hasn’t even left the EU yet. The detail of immigration policy is less important than the central message that free movement is ending – at an as-yet unspecified date. Current trends and the complexity of new proposed visa arrangements make it almost inevitable that the UK will become a less popular destination for EU citizens.

Read more: Brexit: what a delay means for EU citizens and the settled status scheme

A constructive dialogue

A consultation process on the white paper’s proposals will run until November 2019 to gather the views of employers, the public and others. At the same time, the UK needs an informed and constructive debate on immigration, which it’s been suggested might be achieved through citizens’ assemblies. Such a debate could certainly be improved by consideration of the evidence, assisted by experts.

But what is really needed is a dialogue between employers, UK citizens and migrants to bring about mutual understanding and find shared interests. This could then be used to build future immigration policy which addresses public concerns without damaging the economy.

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