If we want to raise wages and tackle unemployment, it's education, not immigration, that's the problem

The loss of jobs in mining and shipbuilding coincided with a shift in British attitudes

Share

Who gets the jobs, especially poorly paid ones, is a vexed and complex issue – as Chris Bryant, Labour’s Shadow Migration Minister, discovered with his botched intervention last week. There are statistics and there are anecdotes, the latter – as in most topics, such as the NHS – packing a bigger punch than the former.

Here is my four pennyworth. A farmer I know in the North-west of England employs 20 packers to prepare produce for the supermarkets. Recently he had relied on eastern Europeans, but – partly in response to political exhortation – he decided to make a determined effort to employ British workers in British jobs.

He asked his local job centre to identify out-of-work people living close to his farm, and was told there were 50 or more who would be told that the farm had vacancies. Five of those visited the farm for interview; three started work; one survived beyond the first week. He proved excellent until he had a row with a fellow worker and drew a knife. End, inevitably, of job. Once again, despite the farmer’s best intentions, his workforce is entirely eastern European.

At the time the farmer told me of his frustrated attempts to employ British, I met five unemployed teenagers (classic Neets – not in education, employment, training or anything else) in a run-down area of a northern town. They had been brought together with great difficulty to meet their MP to discuss their prospects.

The difficulty was that they found it very hard to get out of bed, and, although summoned for a leisurely 10.30am, had to be woken and collected by the woman organising the meeting. They proved feckless and unmotivated, and spent the meeting giggling at private jokes and texting each other on mobile phones.

One young woman said that she had once had a job. Something here to build on? She had lasted one day working at a café. Why had she left? She had been asked to take out the rubbish, a task clearly beneath her, and had quit. Those young people would, even in good times, be utterly unemployable, slumbering on as migrant workers made their dawn way to the farm.

To tell such anecdotes is to invite hostility. Obviously the vast majority of British workers at every level are conscientious, well trained and motivated, and do excellent jobs. But many of those at the bottom have dropped off. We bemoan their apathy while abhorring their potential for occasional explosions of frustrated violence such as the summer riots of 2011.

As large sectors of employment, especially in the north, were swept away, it was easy to see the problems ahead. But the loss of work that required muscle and specialist, but untransferable, skills (coal mining, shipbuilding, steel making) coincided with a shift in British attitudes. Gone was the post-war consensus that we are all in it together: it had become every man and woman for themselves.

If you could afford a nice warm car, more fool you to stand in the rain waiting for a bus. Public bad; private good. With the same insouciance, we failed to put the necessary effort into the education of the newly dispossessed. How much time and discussion has been devoted down the years to the ins and outs of elite education; how little to the plight of the under-educated, doomed to the aimless lives of my teenage sample.

This, rather than EU migration, is the issue. Migrant workers – including the many thousands expected next year when Bulgarians and Romanians get full rights to move and work in the EU – are not on the whole employed because they are cheaper, though there are clearly unscrupulous employers; just as, given the vast disparity of wages between countries such as Romania and the UK, there are migrants who are understandably prepared to accept minimal conditions.

The heart of the problem is education, culture and attitude. It is not new. Twenty years ago I wrote about an east London school where a large proportion of pupils were of Bangladeshi extraction, with parents who rarely spoke English. But the bottom of the school in terms of achievement and aspiration were not these pupils, but a small minority labelled “ESW”. This stood for “English, Scottish, Welsh”, the school’s polite way of saying “white”.

In simple terms, the least well educated and motivated 20 per cent of British people are not equipped to meet the challenges of the free movement of European labour. The consequences are dire for them and also create difficulties – in housing, education, health provision – for the wider society. But the kneejerk reaction of politicians (certainly on the political right) to the pressures in hotspots of lowly paid work is “get tough on migration”.

Liberally minded politicians weave and duck like boxers on the ropes. Having dramatically underestimated a decade ago the numbers – in particular of Poles – who might migrate from the expanding EU, they sidestep further forecasts. This plays into the hands of the xenophobes. Newspapers hostile to migrants litter their articles with words like “influx” and “swamp”, and suggest, none too subtly, that “migrant” is a variant spelling of “scrounger”.

None of this helps those born here and stuck at the bottom of the pile. A sense of injustice is more likely to stoke apathy than aspiration. With his inept leaks Mr Bryant messed up, but he has done a service if the debate on who gets the scarce jobs now addresses the problems rather than the prejudices.

Robert Chesshyre is the author of ‘When the Iron Lady Ruled Britain’

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game