“Today’s employment opportunities may well be snapped up by eager young men and women from central Europe, and economic growth may continue apace, but soon, perhaps very soon, there will be a reckoning…the challenge may not be immediately apparent today but I fear that in the years ahead we shall repent the fact that the first decade of the twenty first century was very much the best of times”
These observations of mine on the twin challenges of high immigration and an indigenous skills deficit during the Queen’s Speech debate in autumn 2007 have turned out to be frighteningly prescient. They came hot on the heels of Gordon Brown’s remarkable pledge to his Party’s conference that he would ‘create British jobs for British workers’. At a time when the economic weather was still clement, the Prime Minister’s statement seemed more a cheap shot of popularity in his arm than a noose around his neck.
Watching the scenes of workers huddled against bitter winds protesting outside the Lindsey oil refinery earlier this year, I wondered whether the time of reckoning I spoke about has already arrived. Frozen out after a contract to expand the refinery was given to an Italian firm using its own labour, those workers were facing the sharp end of a free market that had previously given Britain a decade of boom.
The companies involved had apparently acted within the scope of EU law. However the whole episode jarred with the British sense of fair play and gave weight to the instinct that the battle for jobs is not being fought on a level playing field. Over recent weeks newspapers have been filled with stories of foreign labour undercutting British workers. Here in the capital it has been revealed that the London 2012 Olympics, an increasingly costly taxpayer-funded project which won over many through the promise of jobs and investment to a dilapidated part of East London, is using local workers that are not quite as local as the term implies. Anyone with an address in one of the five Olympic boroughs, including those temporarily living in B&Bs, will be packaged into the government’s shining statistics on the number of locals employed in the construction of its folly.
No doubt the government’s calculation had been that so long as the wider economy was ticking along, the truth behind its miserably opportunistic statements would not be uncovered. Indeed I have in recent years often pointed out in parliamentary debates that whilst London has had the highest unemployment rate, it is impossible to be served in a pub or restaurant in the centre of the capital other than by an economic migrant. Whilst the economy thrived it was easy simply to pay off the 7% of Londoners lacking the skills, aptitude or application to hold down the most basic of employment.
But as the economy has nosedived, the stunning cynicism of government in its production of misleading statistics and headline grabbing catchphrases has undermined any faith that the British worker is being championed.
The truth is that we have been utterly complacent in the good times, happier to turn a blind eye to the enormous skills deficit of the indigenous population. We have been happier to buy our way out of social problems courtesy of a generous benefits system than confront the fact that the British worker is unable (or all too often, unwilling) to compete effectively with the cheap, flexible and ‘no strings’ labour flowing in from abroad. Too often businesses, both large and small, have also ignored any sense of broader responsibility regarding immigration. The ever expanding pool of willing migrant labour that helps to drive down wage levels means that businesses have all too little incentive to look at some of the downsides of an unchecked flow across our borders. Some overseas workers are being paid less than the minimum wage once deductions for accommodation and living costs are taken into account. There is also a huge black economy where cash in hand payments also provide a disincentive to employ indigenous labour requiring national insurance and other deductions.
If we are being truthful, superficially attractive solutions on reducing the numbers coming to work here are not grounded in reality. Short of withdrawing from the EU, pulling out of various international treaties in respect of asylum seekers or halting the number of relatives of previous immigrants joining their families, we are left with little option but to cut the number of international students and non-EU nationals coming here to study or work. Members of these groups often work in the highly skilled global industries and become ambassadors for our country in their future careers. To close our doors to them would be undesirable and counter-productive. Yet in order to keep headline figures on immigration to a minimum, an increasingly cynical government may be forced down that very route.
The real solution, if we are to remain a fully paid-up member of the global market place, is to invest in our own human capital. Ignoring our own people in the good times is unpalatable but broadly sustainable. In difficult times, it is nothing short of scandalous. The real enemy of the ‘British jobs for British workers’ fiasco is not the hapless migrant worker or the European Union. It is the government whose complacency and record of educational failure has condemned an ever larger pool of home grown men and women to a life without employment, here or elsewhere.