Robots versus immigrants: which group would “steal” the most British jobs?

We look behind sensationalist headlines to figure out whether Great British Jobs™ are being robbed by robots or taken over by immigrants.

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By 2035, you’ll be lucky to have a job. According to the Bank of England’s chief economist, nearly half of all British workers will be replaced in the next two decades. But by who?

If you base all of your worldly judgements on the rants of your drunk uncle Nigel and the fact you can now get pierogi in Tesco, then the answer is easy: immigrants.

If you pay closer attention to global trends (and the self-checkout machine you use to buy your pierogi in Tesco), then the answer is very different: robots.

As far as scaremongering and selling papers goes, “stealing your jobs” is a great way to end a headline. But with robots and immigrants getting equal press for snatching Great British Jobs™, which group should you really be worried about? Is Roboxit the only answer?

Let’s start broadly. Between 1997 and 2016, the number of non-UK nationals working in the UK increased from 966,000 to 3.45 million. That’s around 138,000 new working immigrants a year, meaning that if trends continued, there would be nearly 4.7 million foreign-born workers in the UK by 2035. That’s a headline-worthy number of jobs “stolen”, we’re sure, if it weren’t for the fact that the aforementioned chief economist of the Bank of England predicted precisely 15 million British jobs will be lost to robots by that very same year.

Which is all very well and good, of course, but what about the immigrants who are “stealing” our gosh darn jobs right nowAccording to the University of Oxford's Migration Observatory, the industry with the highest share of foreign-born workers in 2014 was “food products manufacturing”, whereby 38 per cent of the workforce were not born in the UK. Next came the “domestic personnel” sector, where 32 per cent were foreign-born workers, followed by the “manufacturing of wearing apparel” at 29 per cent.

Having a third of an entire industry’s jobs filled by migrants is sure to get your jowls a-quivering, and a customary angry wave of the Union Jack might be necessary at this point. But how do these figures compare to the robots who have replaced such jobs? Deloitte, a giant professional services firm, has examined census records from every decade since 1871 to analyse how technology has affected employment. It found that jobs that require “muscle power” – such as factory workers and domestic personnel – decreased dramatically from 23.7 per cent of total employment in 1871 to 8.3 per cent in 2011, due to technological advancements.

Long before the dramatic rise of immigration to the UK in the 1990s, robots and machines were making us redundant.  

“But what about taxi drivers!” you cry. “They’re all foreign, eh? Eh!” True enough, it has been alleged that one in seven UK taxi drivers are from Pakistan, which, if true, means 15 per cent of the industry’s jobs have been snatched away from poor, poor ol’ Brits. But 15 per cent, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a lot less than the 100 per cent of taxi-driving jobs that are currently under threat from driverless cars.

The new technology is predicted to eliminate millions of jobs worldwide, affecting everyone from limo to truck to taxi to bus to ambulance to van drivers in the coming decades. There are 2.5 million white van drivers in the UK, 242,000 licensed taxi drivers, 600,000 Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) licensed drivers, and in 2011 there were just over 47,000 registered driving instructors. That’s 3,389,000 driving jobs in the UK, before we even consider the buses. Every single working immigrant in the UK would have to take up a transport job today in order to take as many jobs as driverless cars will in the next few decades.

But who cares about drivers and factory workers when the NHS has said that 4 per cent of registered nurses are EU migrants and a further 5 per cent of NHS staff are from a non-EU country? Nursing is one industry that hasn’t been affected by the rise of the robots, as Deloitte concludes that the 909 per cent increase in nurses between 1992 and 2014 is because technology is not yet sufficient to replace caring and social work roles. The immigrants then, are “stealing” far more nursing jobs than the robots.

If only, of course, there wasn’t a nursing staffing crisis in the NHS. Immigrants aren’t stealing healthcare jobs from Brits, but are actually filling posts that have remained vacant for years. Data recently obtained by the BBC shows that the NHS had over 23,443 nursing vacancies at the end of 2015, and experts have already predicted that Brexit will make staff shortages worse.

When we imagine robot workers we think of creaky, metallic versions of you and me. In actual fact, they are the self-checkout machines in your local McDonald’s and the giant mechanical arms in our factories that have been silently encroaching on British jobs for decades. Technology has destroyed British jobs for thousands of years, well before Queen Elizabeth I refused to patent a new knitting machine in 1589 for fear it would put people out of work. In May, the technology company Foxconn replaced 60,000 Chinese factory workers with robots. In contrast, no one has yet been able to prove conclusively that immigration actually does negatively affect British employment.

All of this is to say nothing of the fact that both immigrants and robots actually create jobs and boost the economy. Ironically, too, the people who will suffer most from job automation are immigrants, as experts have predicted that, post-Brexit, most EU migrants’ jobs will go to robots.  

Don’t worry, though, if you’ll miss being bigoted by the realisation that robots, not immigrants, are stealing your jobs. Why? Well, because, if you want to get technical, most of our robots are immigrants anyway.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh