One or two government leaks, public ignorance, and the usual tabloid hysteria have ratcheted Britain's migration debate up a few notches in recent weeks. There have been a few voices of reason, but even those who ought to know better seem to be writing rubbish. Columnist Polly Toynbee, for example, has another confused piece about immigration in today's Guardian: Immigration is now making the rich richer and the poor poorer. See if you can follow her logic...
Lots of immigrants have come to Britain; this is a good thing as we need their vocational skills:
The unexpectedly high influx of eastern Europeans, mainly Poles (John Denham, the Labour MP for Southampton Itchen, estimates that the true number is closer to 1 million than the official 400,000), has brought benefits. They bring desperately needed skills, from dentistry to plumbing, compensating for Britain's historic failure in vocational training. But their arrival also takes the urgency out of upskilling our own undertrained workforce. (Wouldn't rapidly trained Newham apprentices be building the Olympic venues if the Poles weren't?)
Nor are they a net cost to the British taxpayer as the vast majority of new migrants have jobs, and they can't claim benefits:
The Institute for Public Policy
Studies[Research] says migrants are profitable: for every £100 in taxes paid by the average British-born person, the average new immigrant pays £112. Migrants make up only 8.7% of the UK's population but pay 10.2% of its income tax. Since many are the enterprising young and fit who anyway can't claim housing or benefits here, that's not surprising.
But immigration is also a bad thing because they undermine training:
..their arrival also takes the urgency out of upskilling our own undertrained workforce. (Wouldn't rapidly trained Newham apprentices be building the Olympic venues if the Poles weren't?)
and migrants are grossly exploited:
They have few costs and many are willing to sleep on floors to save money. This ideally flexible labour force does indeed grow GDP, but it is also often grossly exploited while depressing the wages of all. The minimum wage is some £2 an hour below a survivable living wage.
Mass migration keeps UK wages low:
Near-full employment should mean pay rises - but cheap imported labour helps keep it low. Studies purporting to prove immigration has had no such effect simply don't capture this invisible power. Denham says the arrival of 14,000 Poles in Southampton has cut rates for building workers by half.
while migration benefits rich people at the expense of the poor:
...migration can make the rich richer and the poor poorer. London, where migration is greatest, also has the highest unemployment, especially among British-born ethnic minorities. Poor families in this most expensive city can't pay for childcare, and compete for jobs with single migrants willing to take less than a living wage.
But the rich prosper: restaurants, cleaners and all other services are cheaper because wages are low. It is one of the gross dysfunctions of such an unequal society that the very concept of "GDP per capita" is a meaningless average that often disguises the filling of pockets at the top while those at the bottom are emptied.
and now the Bulgarians and Romanians are about to pour in:
Soon the EU will decide on admitting Bulgaria and Romania. If they join the union, will Britain again be one of the few to let their citizens work here immediately? And what of Turkey next?
...The French non in the constitution referendum was partly a public revolt over the "Polish plumber" fear. Another big migration could imperil the EU itself.
While there is some anecdotal evidence of migrant workers effecting some local labour markets, A8 migrants are such a small part of the labour force (1-2%) that it is hard to imagine how they could "depress the wages of all"! Polly forgets that wage moderation in the face of near-full employment predates the opening up of the borders in May 2004; it can hardly be attributed to the latest immigration wave.
As for her argument that working for the minimum wage is "grossly exploiting" - I'm sure it would seem that way for a journalist on a very healthy six-figure salary, but for many eastern Europeans, working in Britain allows them to earn several multiples of the pay back home. Is that really exploitation?
Rich exploiting the poor? Her example of London is a weak one. Yes, it has an above-average unemployment rate. But this was also the case in the past, when Britain had net emigration, as it is now that it is a net immigrant of labour. So how can this be due to recent A8 migration?
And surely a large group of the 'poor' do benefit from migration - the migrant workers themselves! That Polly has not even considered this possibility shows how little genuine interest she has in their welfare. Truly, socialist internationalism is dead comrades.
While the past two years have seen far more eastern European migrants arrive in Britain than originally expected, Polly failed to point out that many who did arrive have most likely returned home. (The Worker Registration Scheme numbers only record entries to the UK labour market, not exits, so we don't know exactly what proportion).
A million eastern Europeans in the UK? Highly implausible - unless most have chosen not to register, and hence missed out on the right of free movement without registration after 12 months in employment. Why would they do that? (People often mix up stocks and flows in this debate; while it is possible that close to a million A8 migrants passed through the UK labour market in the last couple of years, that doesn't mean most are still here).
Other borders are opening up. Polly forgets to mention that while Britain was initially one of only three EU member states to accept them, eight of the 15 have now opened their borders. The large influx of the past two years was a one-off surge in which Britain took an unusually large share. Now that others are also taking in A8 migrants, inflows should start to ease.
As for Bulgaria and Romania, their combined population is much smaller than the A8 population, and the prospect of Turkey joining anytime soon are remote.
While there is some anecdotal evidence of migrant workers effecting some local labour markets, A8 migrants are such a small part of the labour force (1-2%) that it is hard to imagine how they could "depress the wages of all"! Polly forgets that wage moderation in the face of near-full employment predates the opening up of the borders in May 2004; it can hardly be attributed to migration.
Ms Toynbee calls for "a proper work inspectorate", the government to give agency workers the same rights as other workers after 4 weeks, and "a clearer work-permit system" (more restrictive? quota-based?). She wants the government to serve employers "heavy fines" for employing illegals, and to send them back overseas - but Toynbee also favours "an amnesty for illegals already here for years" (no, it doesn't make sense). Not all of this is nonsense, of course. The minimum wage floor, for example, does need to be enforced. But these are hardly well thought-through proposals.
Time for a proper debate, I'd say.
UPDATE: The 'one million Poles' estimate is attributed to John Denham, PM, but seems to have come from a 21 July 2006 Guardian article by Helen Pidd and Luke Harding: Why would you leave a place like Wroclaw? Here is the relevant paragraph:
Wardas is part of the biggest wave of emigration into Britain for three centuries. Official statistics suggest that 228,000 Poles have registered to live and work in Britain since Poland joined the EU in May 2004. Other estimates suggest the real figure is between 350,000 and 500,000, while last week the respected Polish news magazine Polityka estimated that one million Poles have moved to the UK. Some 83% of them are under 34. This benign invasion of eager and biddable young Poles has, it is generally agreed, been marvellous for the British economy and anyone who had previously struggled to find a cheap plumber.
I note that Polityka is also running a campaign to woo back emigrants.
The main Polish current affairs magazine, Polityka, has launched an incentive scheme called Stay With Us, sponsored by some of Poland's biggest companies, to persuade the country's leading young academics to resist the pull to emigrate.
Perhaps a more interesting issue is the effects of this mass emigration on the Polish economy. The Guardian piece notes the negatives - especially a shortage of doctors and health specialists. But there are important gains too:
The wave of migration to Britain since 2004 has brought some benefits. Last year Poles working outside their country sent home 22bn zloty - almost £4bn. Economists calculate the money accounted for 1.5% of Poland's economic growth last year, now running at 5%. The country's chronic unemployment rate is also shrinking: there are now 300,000 fewer jobseekers than last year, although this doesn't necessarily point to massive job creation, given the number of people who have left the country.
So remittances have boosted economic growth, the unemployment rate is shrinking, and real wages are rising. What is happening today in Poland is not so different to the experiences of countries like Portugal, Spain, Greece and Ireland in the past - it's just happening faster. There are large transitional costs, to be sure. But the key lesson of the single market is that (despite its many flaws) opening up the borders has created a more prosperous and secure Europe that ultimately benefits all.