Leading article: Immigrant workers must not be scapegoated

It is vital that knee-jerk populism be resisted in this downturn

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Economic downturns create terrible strains in all sorts of areas, from family finances to personal relationships. But nowhere are these pressures greater than in the jobs market. The Trades Union Congress warned yesterday that, nationally, 10 people are now chasing every advertised job, more than double the rate of a year ago.

Ominously, this increased competition appears to have coincided with an upsurge in public hostility to workers from overseas. The opinion polls suggest that recent demonstrations outside oil refineries were more than isolated outbreaks of resentment against foreign labour. More worryingly still, the British National Party is expected to make progress in June's European parliamentary elections, possibly even winning a seat in the Brussels assembly.

Ministers will find it increasingly difficult not to respond to such pressures. Britain is not the only country with a contracting employment market. The Australian government yesterday announced that it will impose immigration curbs to reduce the foreign competition for jobs there. The Government is in the process of establishing its own version of the Australian immigration points system. It is entirely possible that ministers here will follow Canberra's latest restrictions too.

Yet the Government needs to tread with care. There has been an unfortunate sloppiness in the language adopted by our political leaders on immigration in recent years. Gordon Brown's "British jobs for British workers" slogan was appropriated by refinery protesters last month and given a quite different meaning than that intended by the Prime Minister.

And knee-jerk policy responses to the downturn could be just as dangerous. Imposing new controls on migrant flows could help reinforce the impression that immigrants are taking people's jobs, when the reality is much more complex. Migrants, particularly entrepreneurs, create jobs as well as compete for them.

This is not to say the politicians should ignore public concerns about immigration. And they have a responsibility to address issues of social cohesion, rather than sweep them under the carpet. But it is also vital that they explain the facts. Britons benefit, just like other Europeans, from the freedom to move and work across the EU. Some 1.5 million Britons work in Europe. And it is worth noting that some British workers looking to move Down Under are likely to be adversely affected by the new Australian curbs. Labour market protectionism is, in the end, just as undesirable and self-defeating as the trade variety.

We need greater honesty too. All the migration restrictions in the world will not prevent our fellow EU citizens looking for and taking work in Britain if they want to. The only way to stop such flows is our withdrawal from the EU. No serious party recommends that for a very good reason: it would be economic suicide.

There is a bitter irony in all this. International labour flows are likely to slow as the global downturn worsens. Many Poles, for instance, are already returning home from Britain. Competition for jobs from foreign labour is actually declining. That is not, however, to say that those overseas workers who remain cannot be scapegoated for the downturn by frightened communities and unscrupulous politicians.

Immigration is a subject that needs to be handled with sensitivity at the best of times. In a recession, any politician who seeks to play politics with the flammable material of foreign workers deserves to be judged harshly indeed.

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