Saturday, 18 October 2008

They really shouldn't start on immigration

Oh dear. You can tell when a government is getting desperate because it turns to immigration. The new Immigration Minister has announced that he going to limit immigration and ensure that the population of the UK does not rise above 70 million.

The reason governments rarely say much about immigration is that enforcement of limits is all but impossible. No limit can be put on immigration from EU countries because EU law forbids it. The only limit that can be put on illegal immigration is through effective border control, a task that has defeated every government in history. International treaty obligations dictate much of asylum policy and all genuine cases are entitled to stay regardless of how many there are. The only limits that can be imposed are on student visas and on work permits for migrant workers from non-EU countries. Work permits are already subject to a so-called "points system" by which admission is given only to those with skills needed in this country. If they really are needed, it is hard to see how restricting their numbers further can benefit anyone.

Let's look at what has happened in recent years since some of the old Soviet bloc countries entered the EU. The government estimated the number of migrant workers likely to come to Britain to be in the tens of thousands each year, in fact they came in hundreds of thousands. There was nothing the government could do about it even if it wanted to. Vast numbers came here to work because the pound was strong against their home country's currency and there was plenty for them to do. They could work here for three or four years, save as much as possible by sharing houses or flats then return home with enough money to buy a house on a decent plot of land, furnish and equip it, buy a car and still have cash in the bank. Now that poor Gordon's economic miracle has been exposed as a fraud and his pound is crumbling, the benefit to them is reduced or eliminated so they are returning home. As and when there is again a serious gulf between what they can earn at home and what they can earn here (or France, or Germany or wherever) the same thing will happen again regardless of how high our population is at the time.

"They come over here, take our jobs, marry our women" is the cry we hear from time to time to justify strict limits on immigration, but I wonder how true it is that they take "our" jobs. How is it that Polish and Ukrainian building labourers were able to find regular employment in preference to the plucky Brits? One would expect there to be two reasons why an employer would take a foreign worker rather than a Brit: money and the work ethic.

Did they require less money? Quite possibly. An employer who pays less than the statutory minimum wage would probably feel safer taking on foreign workers because he would think there is less chance of anyone reporting him. Having said that, how many British labourers work through the books and how many are cash-in-hand? No one can possibly know the numbers but I will hazard an educated guess that they are happy for as much as possible to be in cash so that they get to spend it rather than handing it to Gordon or having to tell the benefits office about it. Anyway, what is wrong with employing someone who is prepared to do the same work for less money? It allows the business to keep its costs down resulting in either lower prices for the customer or greater profits or, in all likelihood, a combination of the two.

Do they work harder? Only anecdotal evidence is available but it seems pretty overwhelming. You will get plenty of hard work out of a Brit who wants to work but if he already receives large hand-outs of benefits for doing nothing he might be less inclined to stretch himself for a few extra pounds compared to someone who has no other source of income and knows his reputation as a hard worker will increase his chance of being chosen again tomorrow and the day after. The reason I say "chosen" is that a lot of unskilled work, such as labouring for builders, kitchen work in hotels or restaurants and farm work is filled day-by-day, people are not employed on even a semi-permanent basis. There can be no legitimate complaint about an immigrant being employed because he works harder than the Brits who might have wanted the job.

Of course not all immigrants take casual work, many are formally retained as employees and others are self-employed skilled tradesmen running their own businesses hiring out their skills. They compete with Brits primarily on price. Sometimes they can undercut the natives, sometimes they cannot. To complain about someone else securing a job because you would have charged more is a shallow and unattractive argument.

And then there are the nationals of non-EU countries covered by the points-system. By definition those who are allowed work permits receive them because they have skills we need and which are not available here already. It is not a wicked system of reverse discrimination which fills some hospitals with nurses from the Philippines. They are trained nurses who were actively encouraged to come here because there were insufficient home-grown nurses to do the work. As more are trained in Britain so the need to recruit overseas is reduced and the number of work permits allowed for foreign nurses will fall.

We must not overlook the often shadowy area of student visas. Many a brothel and office cleaning company is staffed by those "attending" non-courses at compliant colleges. The course ends, but the "student" is nowhere to be seen. It is a route to illegal immigration but very little can be done about it other than restricting the number of student visas issued in the first place.

So who will now be excluded? How will the new restriction of immigration occur? The only thing the government can control directly is the number of visas issued. It can tighten the points system for work permits and run the risk of a skills shortage or it can restrict the number of student visas and risk the financial collapse of colleges who have complied with governmental diktat to expand student numbers. Apart from that the government can tighten border controls and seek out illegal immigrants with greater vigour. Frankly, you might as well ask them to enforce a ban on farting in curry houses, it just can't happen. They can throw lots of money at it and claim success, and they probably will, only it will not be success because the numbers of illegal immigrants and over-stayers they find and deport will be tiny and the cost of finding them, hearing all the appeals and then shipping them out will be vast.

If I were a cynic I would suggest that the new Immigration Minister knows that hundreds of thousands who have come here from Eastern Europe during the boom times will now return home. Many have already left yet many more remain. Say there are 200,000 in the UK for whom work will become more scarce over the next year and life back in their home country will provide better opportunities. They will leave and he will then claim to have reduced the immigrant population by that figure. It might grab a headline for a day or two until it is discovered that the departures have been caused by the government's incompetent management of the economy rather than some empty slogans emanating from a junior Minister at the Home Office.


The Great Simpleton said...

Of course those who come here work harder, they are the ones who have the gumption to "get on their bikes".

When I worked at a mobile phone company in the early '90's I needed a lot of staff to "drive test" sites as they came on air. It took someone sightly technical and a driver for each team. It also required lots of evening and weekend working and paid very well as a result.

Despite being in a recession the only people who were willing to do the work were antipodeans who were working their way round the world. They were hard working, and hard drinking, and completly reliable. Any local staff who we recruited were a pain in the arse to manage as they had a huge sense of entitlement which meant that they wouldn't be flexible, whatever we paid.

Around the same time I read an article by a manager of a bar in Sydney who said he could only get Brits who were working their way round the world to do the work.

Even now I work in an office which is 20% "immigrants" and these are all high tech people as well.

Give me someone who is prepared to get off their backsides anytime, irrespective of their origins.

Mark Wadsworth said...

What GS says.

Also, in terms of numbers, immigration from EU and emigration thereto are not very large numbers and net off to very little. (likewise from/to any other First World countries).

The really big numbers are people coming from Africa, Pakistan, India and so on, much as you'd expect.