Are migrant workers needed to 'do the jobs that locals will not do' or are they simply a more exploitable labour force? Do they have a better 'work ethic' or are they less able to complain? Whatever one thinks about the merits of a cap and reduced labour immigration, slowing or reducing Britain’s increasing reliance on migrant workers will require more than changes in labour immigration policy, argue Drs Martin Ruhs and Bridget Anderson in their new book Who Needs Migrant Workers?
The two senior researchers, from COMPAS (the Centre on the Study of Migration, Policy and Society) at Oxford University, provide a comprehensive framework for analysing the demand for migrant workers in high-income countries. The book demonstrates how a wide range of government policies, often unrelated to migration, contribute to creating a growing demand for migrant labour and this demand can persist even during economic downturns. For example, the book says that in the construction sector the difficulty in finding suitably skilled British workers is critically related to light regulation in the industry and no real requirement on employers to make any long-term investment in their workforce. In contrast, many European states have well developed training and apprenticeship programmes, producing workers with a wide range of transferable skills. Likewise, the structure of the care sector has resulted in a growing demand for low waged, flexible workers: two-thirds of care assistant in London are now migrants.
The book includes quantitative and qualitative analyses of the changing role of migrants in the UK economy. It includes in-depth examinations of the nature of staff shortages and the use of migrant workers in six sectors: health; social care; hospitality; food production; construction; and financial services.
Books asked Drs Ruhs and Anderson about their research
Does your research find that migrants are doing jobs in the UK that we don't want to do, or are they easier to exploit?
Our research finds that while the presence of migrants in the labour market is often presented as 'hard-working migrants versus lazy Britons' this is not a helpful way of framing the debate. And neither is the 'evil employer and exploited migrant'. Rather, in order to understand why it is that migrants figure so prominently in certain jobs, you have to look at the constraints that affect British workers (e.g. difficulty of getting appropriate housing near work; family commitments), the type of jobs on offer (often insecure, with no defined career structure), and the characteristics of certain groups of migrants (young and without dependants).
Does your research lead you to think that migrants are one of the solutions to a skills shortage in the UK?
This is not straightforward as the question of what is a 'skills' shortage, and what is a straightforward 'labour shortage' is very contested. Employers often claim that certain workers are skilled even when they do not require formal qualifications and are low waged; leaving that aside, clearly for some jobs migration is one option. There may be other options as well: we've recently seen employers saying that they are going to outsource work. The question is a normative one, are migrants the 'best' option which is clearly a political question. It should also be recognised that skills shortages may result from the structure of certain industries. For example, in construction the fragmentation of the industry, proliferation of false self-employment and long subcontracting chains means that employers have little incentive to train. Why should one spend resources on training programmes when the trainee will simply move on or be poached by another employer? Labour market institutions and structures are deeply implicated in de-skilling.
Does your research also explore the black economy involving illegal migrants in the UK? Should we be worried about the number of illegal migrants working in the UK?
There are some assumptions here. Firstly what is an 'illegal migrant'? Our previous research has found for example a lot of au pairs who are supplementing their income by working in bars. Technically they are illegal migrants in that they could be removed from the UK, but none of their host families were concerned about encouraging them to breach their immigration conditions. Secondly, not all 'illegal migrants' work in the black economy. They may be working using other people's national insurance numbers for instance. Rather than just worrying about the number of illegal migrants we would argue we should spend more time worrying about the number of low waged, precarious jobs on offer in Britain today. Is below the minimum wage agency work the kind of 'British job' that we want to encourage?
What are your findings based on and how difficult is it to get accurate information about migrants given the sensitivities?
The book's contributors are all experts in different sectors of the labour market.
How do you hope this research can be used by policy makers and other interested groups?
The book provides a framework for analysing labour demand, and demand for migrant workers in particular. This is then applied to different sectors. While we can't say that it gives any easy answers, it should help them ask some of the right questions when determining their priorities.