Bulgarian and Romanian high-flyers call for immigrant workers to be given equal job rights

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A group of Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK at the highest levels of banking, law, commerce and industry urge the Government today to give their compatriots the same rights that were granted to new members of the EU two years ago.

The two former Soviet bloc countries are set to get the green light tomorrow to join the 25-strong union on 1 January, but the Home Office is preparing to announce tight controls on its citizens' right to work in Britain. John Reid, the Home Secretary, has decided that Romanians and Bulgarians will only be given work permits if they are highly qualified or can fill skills shortages - a much tougher line than taken when eight east European nations joined the EU in May 2004.

It follows growing fears, both among business organisations and Labour MPs, that the recent rise in unemployment has been caused by migrant workers filling posts at the expense of native job-seekers. While 300,000 new jobs have been created over the past year, around 250,000 have joined the official jobless count. But in an open letter to The Independent, some 45 senior executives in organisations such as Goldman Sachs and KPMG, warned ministers that protectionist measures would only harm the UK.

The letter - which they signed in a personal capacity - said: "We are already established and fully integrated in the UK, contributing to its economic vibrancy, business success and the public services.

"We applaud the vigorous debate that is taking place in the UK on migration but are concerned at the implication that migration from Bulgaria and Romania needs to be managed more than any other group of immigrants.

"We hope that the UK will continue the policy lead it took in 2004, when it was one of only three countries to open its labour market to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the other countries of eastern Europe. An open labour market, rather than protectionism, has proved the right course in the past and will do so in the future."

Official figures from the 2001 census show that there are 5,200 Bulgarians in England and Wales and 7,200 Romanians. Both populations were dwarfed by the 58,100 Poles recorded.

The letter added: "Just as many UK citizens have sought to work, study and live in other EU member states, this option will be increasingly available to the peoples of eastern Europe."

The letter was organised by Business for a New Europe (BNE), a campaign group supported by the heads of some of the country's leading companies.

The Government has agonised for months over its response to the admission of thh two new member states, with Foreign Office ministers urging that a liberal line should be taken over allowing Romanians and Bulgarians to work in Britain. They also predict that the new EU citizens are more likely to head towards Greece and Italy than further west.

But Mr Reid has decided to introduce a "points system" which assesses the skills, qualifications and experience of potential workers. Details of the scheme will be spelt out shortly - possibly in the Home Secretary's speech to the Labour conference in Manchester on Thursday.

Last week he said that the Government would handle immigration from Romania and Bulgaria "carefully" and hinted at worries over the levels of organised crime in the two states. The Home Office also privately admits that it was taken by surprise by the scale of labour movement when Poland and seven other east European nations joined the European Union.

Roland Rudd, the chairman of BNE and founder of the City of London PR firm Finsbury, said the letter showed the range of entrepreneurial, educational and other activities that Bulgarians and Romanians in the UK were already involved in.

"In many respects, they can serve as the role models for future generations of migrants," he said. "The workers from eastern Europe who were already in the UK, as well as those which have come since 2004, have contributed hugely to our economy. We should be inspired by the energy and creativity of these workers, who can help the UK's economy become more competitive. Business for New Europe believes that the prospect of further migration from eastern Europe should be a source of celebration, not cowardice."

The Bulgarian authorities have started a PR offensive to assuage some of the Government's worries about expansion of the union.

Last week the embassy in London published research showing that the number of Bulgarians planning to emigrate permanently to other EU states had fallen since 2001. In particular, the number looking to move to work had fallen from 7 to 3 per cent.

Vess Gentchev, 44, solicitor: 'I engineered a £200m project for my firm'

The Bulgarian ice hockey player, who now lives in Surrey, defected to Britain at the age of 25 when he travelled here with his team during the Cold War.

He had been studying civil engineering in Bulgaria and found a job within two weeks of settling in south London, despite being unable to speak English.

"I went round all the construction sites and just asked if they needed anyone. I was prepared to work hard. In the evenings, I started going to English classes, and I also got a job in McDonald's to cover me when times were quiet in construction work," he said.

He went on to complete a civil engineering degree at London University, and eventually re-trained as a solicitor, specialising in construction and private finance initiatives. In his current solicitors' firm, he has brought in work because of his Bulgarian roots.

"At the moment, we are advising the Bulgarian government over a construction dispute at Sofia airport. The dispute is worth €300m [£200m] and... I engineered the whole appointment," he said.

Arifa Akbar