Migrants in the workforce: facts v fiction

Government policy does mercifully little to affect the labour market, even if it could be doing better.

NIESR's Jonathan Portes takes the time to critique Home Office minister Mark Harper. Harper said, in a comment on last week's labour force data release:

These figures show we are building a better immigration system that works in the national interest and is supporting growth. The rise in numbers in employment has benefited British citizens first, but our system is still allowing skilled migrants to come to the UK where they are needed by British businesses.

Portes argues that the labour force survey shows no such thing. When we look at the proportions of the working age population and of people in employment who are foreign born, we find a stark correlation, and a smooth trend. The trend is slightly accelerated by the new EU member states in 2004, and temporarily stalled by the recession, but largely consistent:

 

As Portes writes:

It is difficult - or at least certainly far too early - to see any significant change in the long run trend here. It is therefore difficult to see how changes to the immigration system could have had any substantial impact, as yet, on the employment of the UK born.

Thankfully, if the solution is imaginary, so too is the problem. Harper is continuing a Tory meme that "new jobs go to migrants".

Here's Fraser Nelson's take on the meme, for instance:

Over the 12-month period to which Osborne refers [Q2 2010 to Q2 2011], 90.1 per cent of the extra employment amongst the working-age population can be accounted for by an increase in foreign nationals working in the UK.

As Portes points out, thought through for a couple of seconds, such a claim is clearly nonsense:

Think about where you work. How many of the last ten people who were hired were immigrants? In most workplaces, probably none, one, or two. Very roughly, about 20,000 people start a new job every working day in the UK — the vast majority were born here.

The claim is actually just a restatement of arithmetic fact. The proportion of the population which is foreign born is increasing almost as quickly as the workforce. Rephrasing that as "foreign nationals taking most jobs" is as untrue as it would be to say that between 2009 and 2011 219 per cent of new jobs were taken by disabled people.

The government's policy has little effect on the stats cited above because the government's policy has little effect on immigration. It can only fiddle at the margins, thanks to the combined pressures of EU migration and British emigration. That's not to say it can't still do a huge amount of damage, as Cameron learned to his cost when he had to go pleading to India to promise better treatment at the hands of UKBA; and if we're talking about pro-growth migration policies, there's only one, and it's more migration.

But we'll still see the same old hackneyed arguments come up tomorrow, when the immigration statistics come out. So consider this a pre-buttal. Whether or not the government has achieved its populist target of slashing net migration, it's doing mercifully little to affect the labour market, even if it could be doing better.

"So, which line is the one for the job-stealing scum and which is for patriotic Brits spreading wealth abroad?" Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.