What Brexit teaches the world about migrant work

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During the global pandemic, the usual patterns of international migration were shaken up like a kaleidoscope. In the US, net international migration fell to its lowest level in decades. In Malaysia, palm oil plantations found themselves scrabbling around for workers after Indonesian and Bangladeshi workers went home. In the UK, a swath of EU workers from truck drivers to nurses and baristas packed their bags and didn’t come back.

That was partly about the pandemic, of course, and partly about Brexit. Freedom of movement came to an end in December 2020 amid the Conservative government’s promises to wean the economy off a reliance on low-paid migrant labour. The idea that migrants undercut locals is an idea that resonates with voters in a lot of countries, including the US, so it’s worth paying attention to how well the plan is working out in Britain so far.

The short answer is: not great. According to the headlines this weekend, the government is planning an overseas hiring spree to try to cope with a shortage of workers in the social care sector. It’s obviously a satisfying “I told you so” moment for opponents of Brexit, but I don’t think it’s a development anyone should celebrate.

As I wrote in my column a few weeks ago, the reason there’s a shortage of care workers is pretty simple: it’s a tough job with antisocial hours, insecure contracts and it simply doesn’t pay well enough. Care providers, starved of adequate funding from the government, have allowed many jobs to settle at close to the minimum wage. It now pays slightly better to work in a supermarket where the hours are more social and predictable.

The best solution, then, would be to fund the social care sector adequately so that the jobs could pay a decent wage. The government has raised taxes to bring more money in, but most of it has been gobbled up by the NHS — which is also in crisis. And who knows what will happen to that plan under the next prime minister since Liz Truss, the frontrunner in the Tory leadership contest, is determined to cut taxes.

The second-best solution would be to turn the clock back and keep freedom of movement with the EU. Under that system, migrant workers who came to the UK had the freedom to switch jobs as they saw fit, which meant they were at less (though not zero) risk of exploitation.

Instead, Britain has ended up with a worst-case scenario. A vital sector is full of insecure and badly paid jobs, which employers need to bring in migrants to fill — notably migrants with fewer rights who are more vulnerable to exploitation. Under the post-Brexit immigration system, care workers can come from a much wider range of countries, but their visas are tied to their employers, which makes it harder for them to vote with their feet if they are badly treated. Some are also being charged illegal recruitment fees by the agents which bring them over.

It’s a similar story in the agricultural sector, where the government has introduced seasonal worker visas for people to come and pick crops like asparagus and strawberries. The scheme has already run into problems: The Guardian only last week wrote about Indonesian farmworkers in Kent who had paid thousands of pounds to brokers for the jobs. Meanwhile, farmers complain they still don’t have enough workers to pick all their fruit and vegetables.

If the UK government had really wanted to wean the country off low paid migration, it should have faced up to the trade-offs — from higher taxes for social care to higher food prices or more imported food in the shops. But trade-offs are so boring and dreary compared with sunlit uplands, aren’t they?

Ed, I wonder how Brexit looks to Democrats and Republicans in the US at this point. Is anyone in DC following our failing attempt to live without low-paid migration? And how politically salient do you think immigration will be for American voters in the next few years?

Edward Luce responds

Sarah, you have provided as succinct and demoralising a summary of Britain’s unforced errors on immigration — and the Brexit project as a whole by implication — as I’ve read in a while. It is particularly discomfiting that Britain is about to get a prime minister whose major concrete pledge is to cut taxes “on day one” at the moment when there are mounting social and economic problems that require public resources. In that sense, the British right is very much on the heels of its US cousin, minus Donald Trump; their solution for everything is to cut taxes. The rest is smoke and mirrors and scapegoating. I am not anti-conservative. I’m anti-PT Barnum. The fact that the two have morphed into the same thing is the salient fact of modern Anglo-American democracy.

As regards America’s view of Brexit, I don’t think it has changed. Most Americans who pay attention to politics across the water see it as a regrettable bout of magical thinking by a democracy that was once famed for its commonsensical pragmatism. I’m not sure how many people have picked up on the fact that consistent majorities of Britons now say Brexit was a mistake. Those who have taken note are probably unaware of how hard Brexit would be to reverse. Labour’s new slogan seems to be “Make Brexit work”, which is both an oxymoron and a measure of Keir Starmer’s timidity.

On your second question, yes immigration remains a big factor in US politics and it is axiomatic on the right that Joe Biden is an open borders president. To be fair, his critics have some facts on their side. The US is on course in 2022 to apprehend 2mn illegal immigrants, which would be a record. Most of this is because of the booming US labour market, rather than Biden’s welcome mat. But central American migrants are not stupid. They know the difference between a Trump and a Biden administration. The latter is not going to put their children in cages.

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