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Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Need for Immigration

A defense of businesses employing migrant workers from the director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce:

Employers are not the villains in the battle over immigration, by David Frost, Commentary, Financial Times: The publicity surrounding the launch of the government’s proposals on asylum and immigration, due tomorrow, has focused heavily on punishing British businesses for employing illegal migrants.

As far as business is concerned this is a complete diversion. The real issue is the fact that UK companies are increasing their use of legal migrant labour at an enormous rate. ... Businesses tell me that the single biggest problem they face is finding the skilled people they need to drive their businesses. They are solving the problem by employing migrant labour.

At the root of this, our school system is not providing significant numbers of our young people with the foundation in essential skills they need for the workplace. Only 44 per cent of school-leavers gain five GCSEs at grade A to C including English and maths. The Department for Education and Skills views this standard as the very minimum employability skills for basic productivity. In addition, there are up to 8m adults lacking the very lowest level of literacy and numeracy needed for the world of modern work.

The response of the business community to the poor quality of young people entering the labour market is to look increasingly to migrant labour, particularly from central Europe and specifically Poland. Employers tell me the reasons for this are simple and twofold: migrants have higher-level skills and a far better attitude to work than local people. They are enthusiastic and committed. ... Indeed, I met the owner of an electronics company in the east of England this month who has now given up recruiting through local newspapers. He finds it more cost effective to send his human resources manager out to Poland to recruit directly.

While business needs continued managed migration, we have to question whether this is the panacea for the UK’s skills shortages. We could be storing up significant social problems, especially in urban areas, if we assign the large number of young people with no qualifications and no work ethic to the scrap heap. Overall numbers in the labour market are rising, but so are the numbers of unemployed. It will not be a cohesive society if we have increasing numbers of migrants employed but at the same time the indigenous population is unable to find jobs.

The government must, therefore, ensure that the education system is fit for purpose. ... The current focus ... within our schools is divisive and elitist. The education system must engage all young people, whatever their talent or ability, and inspire them to learn and succeed. Our businesses and economy need skilled young people...

In addition, the government must ensure that the tax and benefits system acts as an incentive to get people into work. It is clear, particularly in the case of hourly-paid employees, that it does not currently provide a strong enough incentive... Until these issues are dealt with, migration will continue to play an ever growing role in addressing the needs of British business.

The British Chambers of Commerce will never support employers who flout the law and employ illegal immigrants. Indeed, ... employers who knowingly take on illegal immigrants [must be] punished accordingly. However, the overwhelming majority of employers are keen to ensure that they are operating within the constraints of the law. What business needs is an immigration process that is simple, clear and transparent...

But the employment of illegal migrants is a minor part of the issue and it is disingenuous to imply otherwise. The government should concentrate on solving the problems that are making our economy dependent on migration instead of shifting the blame for the failure of its complex and bungled immigration policy on to business.

I don't know how the percentage of illegal immigrants in the U.K at various skill levels compares to the numbers here, but this is directed mainly at high skill, not low skill immigration. To that extent, I agree with the main thrust of the argument - it's a nasty sort of bait and switch when we let our schools deteriorate and then claim we must allow high skill immigration because domestic workers aren't up to the task and the needs of business must take precedence in the global economy.

So long as cheap skilled labor is available elsewhere, business does not have a strong incentive to participate in efforts to improve the skill level of domestic workers. Notice he says "government should concentrate on solving the problems that are making our economy dependent on migration instead of shifting the blame ... to business." He calls on government to do more, but the attempt is to absolve business of responsibility for problems. He doesn't call for business to share in the responsibility and participate in the effort by, minimally, helping to set the political tone needed to make the improvements in domestic education he desires.

Update: Comments lead me to believe that perhaps my assertion that this is directed at higher skill immigration is incorrect. The talk of the biggest problem being businesses "finding the skilled people they need," the mention of "skills shortages," and that "migrants have higher-level skills" as well as the electronics firm example (which I took to mean high-skill employment) led me astray...

    Posted by on Sunday, July 23, 2006 at 12:50 PM in Economics, Immigration, Policy, Politics, Unemployment, Universities | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (27)


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