In the lead-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, I was having a conversation with my mother about the pros and cons of leaving the EU. She was a Brexiteer whereas I was a Remainer (albeit a reluctant one). She was talking about her son-in-law (my sister’s partner) who was working as a lorry driver. He was having to compete for work with Polish drivers who were willing to drive for longer hours and for less money, she told me.
At the time of our conversation I had recently finished a whistle-stop tour of the UK researching for my book Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. During my travels, I heard similar grumbles to those of my brother-in-law. Migrant workers were accused of undercutting the wages of locals. Nor could you talk about this, apparently, or else you risked being labelled a racist and cast out of polite society.
That wasn’t strictly true of course: for decades influential sections of the British printed media had been deeply hostile to immigration. Indeed, immigration was one of a handful of topics you “couldn’t talk about” and yet spoke about almost constantly.
There was, however, a deep reluctance on the left to talk about the effect that migration from the EU (particularly from Eastern Europe) might be having on the UK labour market, as I discovered when Hired was published. Yet I had seen it with my own eyes: during my research at companies including Amazon, I saw workers being bussed in on coaches to former colliery towns like Rugeley, Staffordshire, to do the poorly paid, precarious jobs that locals would not do. The same was true when I worked as a home carer in Blackpool.
Local British workers I talked to about this were not lazy or entitled, as was sometimes suggested. They had simply grown up in a rich country amid a landscape of steady material progress. The social democratic settlement may have been dismantled by the Tory governments of the 1980s, but the UK remained a hybrid of European as well as American ideas about work. British workers expected more out of a job than a zero-hours contract and (in the case of Amazon) disciplinary “points” for taking days off sick. Was it automatically a bad thing to feel superior to the work on offer in Amazon warehouses or fruit picking in Kent? Surely that depended on whether the prevailing conditions allowed a person to retain their dignity and self-respect. From what I had seen, I was unsure such jobs did allow that.
For their part, the Eastern European workers I spoke with were under no illusions as to their place in the pecking order, even if their self-appointed guardians in the liberal media often preferred to bury their heads in the sand. “Everybody is here just for money,” a young Romanian worker at Amazon told me. It was economic necessity that had brought them to the UK. They were, therefore, willing to put up with more exploitation than their British counterparts. “They [Amazon] treat us like slaves,” the Romanian worker told me.
[See also: Why Brexit still threatens the UK car industry]
I have been revisiting these conversations as labour shortages have begun to plague the British economy. The number of job vacancies has now risen above one million. Gaps are appearing on supermarket shelves. McDonalds has run out of milkshakes. The Daily Mail, which has boomed on about EU migrants for decades, is now warning that shoppers may have to pay more for food if lorry drivers are offered higher wages to plug labour shortages. Retailers are calling on the government to issue temporary visas for EU workers to plug the gaps.
The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated labour shortages; but so has Brexit. Now that the UK has left the EU there are simply fewer Eastern European workers in the UK: fewer Polish lorry drivers and fewer Romanians willing to trudge up and down Amazon warehouses for ten and a half hours a day. My mother got what she wanted.
Or did she? Gaps on the supermarket shelves and talk of factories employing prisoners have prompted a burst of schadenfreude from some Remainers: this is all the fault of Brexit, and if we reversed that the problem would correct itself. That’s the top and tail of it.
I do not share this sentiment, not least because I don’t accept that the UK’s reliance on unskilled, cheap labour is an unalloyed good. Perhaps it’s fine if all you have to fear are a few gaps on the supermarket shelves. But I imagine that the British workers I encountered travelling around the UK in 2016 are not dissatisfied with the way things are heading now. Nor is my brother-in-law, who until recently was working a job with low rates of pay and 70-hour weeks. He can finally demand a better deal from his employers. In 2016, when I was applying for a job in an Amazon warehouse, a manager at the employment agency Transline boasted that he had “70 Eastern Europeans waiting for a job if you don’t want it”. I’m not sure he could say the same thing today.
This is the reason many low-paid workers voted for Brexit, even if Remainers do not wish to hear it. But then, perhaps they don’t want to acknowledge that they themselves are shielded from the vicissitudes at the bottom of the labour market. Britons in well-paying jobs have never had much to fear from low-skilled EU migration. The same is not true of those in low-paying occupations.
To be sure, there are other ways of securing improved pay and conditions for low-paid workers than choking off the supply of economic migrants. The dearth of trade union representation in contemporary workplaces is arguably a bigger fetter on workers’ demands than foreign labour. Indeed, the choice to keep wages low is a conscious one taken by big employers. Workers organising under an effective union leadership could squeeze bigger concessions out of employers while eschewing the ugly rhetoric that often accompanies conversations around economic migration.
But empty supermarket shelves should not prompt a bout of ugly schadenfreude on the part of those (including myself) who never wanted to leave the EU in the first place. Low-paid workers are enjoying more workplace leverage than they have had for many years. We may not agree with the path taken to get here, and we might grumble about missing items on our weekly shop but our dysfunctional labour market – supporting a middle-class world of convenience and abundance – has depended for many years on a large reservoir of exploited labour. Now that it’s been choked off, I expect some workers are rejoicing.