David Cameron with immigration officers in December 2013. Photo: Getty
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Most Romanians and Bulgarians already had full access to benefits before 2014

Oxford researchers have now found that, last year, 59.1 per cent of working migrants from the two countries were self-employed, which gave them the same access to tax credits and housing benefits as any other self-employed EU migrant in the UK.

New research reveals most Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK were unaffected by the “transitional controls” in place until the start of this year.

According to much of the media, these controls were the only thing holding back floods of migrants. Even now, nearly two months after Romanians and Bulgarians gained full access to the UK’s labour market, the controls are still in the news.

The Telegraph reports numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK reached a “record high” last year, even before controls were removed. The Mail meanwhile claims “one in ten new roles” created last year went to migrants from the two countries.

But what if it turns out most Romanian and Bulgarian migrants were already unaffected by the controls? That is the conclusion of research carried out by the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory which builds on an article previously published by The Conversation on the existence of benefits tourism.

When the two nations joined the EU in 2007, richer countries were worried about a possible influx of low skilled migrants. Temporary restrictions – “transitional controls” – were therefore put in place to limit Romanians and Bulgarians' access to certain jobs, primarily those in agriculture and food processing. Access to the benefits system was also limited.

However, these controls did not apply to self-employed workers. Oxford researchers have now found that, last year, 59.1 per cent of working migrants from the two countries were self-employed. That compares with just 13.9 per cent of UK nationals.

Self-employed status gave Romanian and Bulgarian migrants the same access to tax credits, housing benefits and so on as any other self-employed EU migrant in the UK, even while the transition controls were still in place. Unlike his or her fellow nationals with a single employer, a self-employed Romanian enjoyed the same status in the UK as a freelance worker from France or Italy.

But this doesn’t mean things were rosy, or that the “benefit tourism” stories were right all along. In fact, quite the opposite.

As the Migration Observatory report makes clear, the transition controls meant registration as self-employed was “less of a choice than a necessity” for Romanians and Bulgarians coming to work in the UK. Controls may have been easily evaded, but they seem to have simply pushed migrants into what the Romanian Embassy called last year a “grey area of the labour market”.

Liliana Harding, a lecturer in economics at the University of East Anglia, describes the creation of “a secondary labour market, where (self-employed) workers are deprived of various social and residence entitlements.” It may have also led to lower wages, as self-employed workers can avoid minimum wage rules.

This isn’t a great position to be in. “Migrants are easily exploitable”, points out Jon Fox of the University of Bristol, “but they work hard, and they pay in more than they take out.”

Carlos Vargas Silva, one of the author’s of the Migration Observatory’s analysis recognises public concern over what the end of transitional controls might bring. “But” he says, “these figures show that limits to welfare access included in the transitional controls did not affect the majority of Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK since 2007.”

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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