The UK government has taken a step forward in its plans to establish a ‘properly managed’ scheme for economic migration to the UK.
Announcing new research on the role of foreign-born workers in the British labour market, the Home Office has claimed that migrant workers do not take away jobs from the resident population if they are carefully selected so that their skills are used to ‘complement’ the existing work force. Under such conditions, the new research suggests, migration may even increase wages for the entire work force.
The government is hoping that the results of its independent research will persuade the anti-immigration lobby that Britain should welcome immigration from eastern Europe. The publication of the research was accompanied by an announcement that Britain will grant working rights to people from the eight new countries – the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia – set to join the European Union on 1 May 2004. Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Greece have already announced that they will offer citizens of the new countries the right to work but Germany, France and Italy are planning to delay the right for up to seven years.
The eight new countries were all recently included on the government’s controversial ‘white list’ of countries from where refugee claims were to be presumed false. And the Home Office has said that it will continue to deport rejected asylum seekers to eastern Europe until the new right to work comes into effect in eighteen months time.
The Home Secretary David Blunkett has made a number of statements over the last year claiming that migration makes a positive contribution to social and economic life. Yet the recently passed Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act has been widely criticised for bringing in tougher immigration controls and making life harder for those awaiting a decision on their case. Only very limited avenues of migration for those who are not refugees have been introduced, even for those with skills much in demand. For those without recognised skills, employment is restricted to short-term, casual work, with no family reunion rights for the workers and the expectation that they return home after six months.
The research on migrant workers, which has been commissioned by the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions, suggests that around ten per cent of the working-age population in Britain were born abroad. Migrants are more likely than the UK-born population to have a degree but suffer lower wages and higher rates of unemployment, particularly those from Asia, Africa and eastern Europe. The research did not examine the contribution of undocumented workers for whom wages are below the legal minimum.
On the basis of the research, the government anticipates that two conditions need to be met if migrants are not to compete directly with existing workers for the same jobs. First, a carefully managed regime of controls needs to be maintained to ensure that only a ‘complementary skills mix’ is selected for migration. Second, ‘flexibility’ needs to be imposed on the domestic labour market; according to the research, the ‘key determinant of migrant impacts is the degree of flexibility in the UK economy’.