Boris Johnson used his conference speech last week to position the Tories as the party of higher wages, promising a shift away from the old UK economic model, which he says uses “uncontrolled” immigration as “an excuse for failing to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment or machinery needed to do the job”
The logic is cruel but simple. Johnson is trying to portray the supply chain crisis, caused in part by a shortage of truck drivers and agricultural workers, as a temporary pain in the name of long-term gains. In this new version, the labour shortage will wean Britain off the low-skilled immigrant workforce that once came through free movement to the EU, thereby fulfilling one of the key promises of Brexit.
By contrast, Johnson believes, his Labour opponents are stuck in the past. Building on Keir Starmer’s recent proposal that the government’s temporary visa scheme for lorry drivers should be extended to 100,000 places, the Conservatives have formulated a new line of attack. “Vote Tory to get a pay rise, vote Labour to see mass immigration reduce your wages,” is how one government source recently put it.
But this framing of the issue gives the false impression that migration is something that can be turned on and off like a tap. For the Conservatives this framing may be convenient, but in the absence of a broader economic strategy it is unlikely to provide any long-term solution to the UK’s wage problem, which has barely changed since the global financial crisis of 2008. For Labour, it risks trapping the party in political territory where only right-wing arguments can succeed.
One in six hospitality jobs are vacant, but staff shortages are now spreading throughout the UK economy.
Britain is now discovering that immigration is not just a matter of economic need, but also of human relations. Over the past few weeks, EU lorry drivers have been patiently explaining to journalists why they find the government’s new three-month visa scheme to keep shop shelves full, unattractive. “No thanks, Mr Prime Minister,” Jakub Paika, a Polish driver, told Reuters in Warsaw. “No driver wants to move for just three months just to make it easier for Brits to organise their holidays.”
EU workers’ lack of enthusiasm for the new visa scheme – there are currently 5,000 places for lorry drivers and another 5,500 for poultry workers – was met with a fair degree of surprise in the Westminster bubble, but it should not have been. As Iva Aleksandrova, an expert on migration policy and author of Here to Stay, a book on the experiences of Eastern European immigrants in Britain, told me: “It was quite insulting in a way. Like, we kicked you out, but now we need you for three months and then we will kick you out again.”
The British immigration debate often assumes that people from less affluent countries will not miss the chance to come to the UK, but this is not always the case. EU citizens, for example, may prefer to seek work in EU member states where they enjoy greater rights. Also, demographic changes mean that Central and Eastern European countries, once a source of Western migration, are now looking for workers themselves. (Romania, for example, is facing a shortage of fruit pickers).
To some it would seem that migration policy must be carefully and delicately planned. But the government has responded by treating the country as a whole in the same way it treats universal credit recipients. Just as cutting benefits by £20 a week should force people back into work – or, if they are already working, into higher-paying jobs – the government is now telling us that the autumn job cuts are a necessary step towards a higher-paying economy, no matter what suffering they cause. However, even on its own terms this plan is unlikely to work.
Lower immigration does not automatically lead to higher wages, just as growth and productivity cannot be increased without a serious plan to invest in education and skills. The Johnson government has a poor record of understanding these issues. This has largely been forgotten since the pandemic, but when the issue of labour shortages previously dominated the news, in February 2020 Home Secretary Priti Patel caused ridicule for claiming that 8.5 million “economically inactive” people in the UK could make up the shortfall, even though many of them are students, carers, sick people or pensioners.
The UK’s post-Brexit immigration system has been sold to us as a system in which the country can choose the “brightest and best” in the world. (A euphemism for the rich and highly educated) and dispense with the services of the less well-off. In fact, immigration will continue to play a significant role in maintaining those professions that are considered “low-skilled” but which are in fact essential to the functioning of the country. Thanks to political choice, as the last few weeks have shown, this will be done randomly and with conditions – such as visas that tie workers to a particular employer – that increase the likelihood that people will be exploited.
Already, the seasonal visa scheme for agricultural workers has been expanded from 2,500 places in 2019 to 30,000 this year, mainly to hire people from Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Moldova and other countries. A report published in March this year by the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation warned that the scheme carries risks of human trafficking and forced labour. The petty cruelty of the UK immigration system, which makes it difficult for many immigrants to access health care or benefits, further limits the options for people at risk.
Despite this, Johnson’s new position is a potentially powerful campaign tool. With some senior Tories reportedly tired of the Right’s “war on corruption”, the promise of a pay rise as a reward for Brexit could be an effective way to unite the coalition of voters that the Conservatives have been able to muster in 2019.
If Labour wants to avoid the trap laid for them, they need to come up with an answer that rejects pitting different groups of workers against each other. They have recently endorsed sectoral collective bargaining – sectoral agreements between unions and employers that are used in countries such as the Netherlands to set minimum standards for pay and conditions. Such policies have a real chance of improving the situation of workers, but they need to be part of a wider conversation about power: what will give people genuine control over their working lives, regardless of their immigration status?
Daniel Trilling, The Guardian