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’