Boris Johnson saw immigration as the driver of Brexit, and has produced a policy that taps into questions about the nature of work
The government’s proposed immigration reforms represent perhaps the biggest change to British life since the Maastricht treaty almost three decades ago gave Europeans the freedom to live and work in this country. It is to be regretted deeply that free movement of people, a high-minded ideal that was intended to make the European Union more popular, was weaponised to make membership so unpopular that the British public voted to leave the bloc. In its place, Boris Johnson proposes new routes for high-skilled migrants to enter Britain while closing the door on large-scale unskilled immigration.
For Mr Johnson, having decided immigration was the driver of the Brexit vote, there is no trade-off between controlling borders and trading with Europe. From next year businesses can no longer recruit from outside the UK for unskilled workers and will only offer jobs to those with an A-level or above and who are to be paid more than £25,600 annually. There will be a level playing field for immigrants from the EU and the rest of the world. For certain privileged categories – the plans cite foreign nurses – there will be exceptions. The government says overall numbers of migrants will fall. Ministers might be right, but it’s not certain. If the economy suffers – the sudden loss of EU workers may lead to widespread labour shortages – then we may see ministers U-turn and relax the rules further to let numbers rise.
At the heart of the debate lies an argument about class interests. It has been argued that the benefits of low-wage immigration flow largely to the affluent consumers of labour-intensive services, while the costs fall on low-wage workers. The starkest version of this analysis claims the wealthy wanted to run businesses with low-wage employees while their children could be looked after by cheap domestic help. Until the Labour party can defeat these arguments, expect Mr Johnson to press home the political advantage. What works in politics may not in economics. On farms there will be lettuce that needs picking and potatoes that must be harvested. Foreign labour is imported to do that work because workers here will not. If crops end up rotting in fields, how will the government react? Given that the hospitality sector runs on EU labour, who will staff the hotels and restaurants that Britons use for weekend breaks and family outings?
Priti Patel, the home secretary, was grasping at straws when she said that businesses ought to enlist the 8 million “economically inactive” to plug the gaps. She argued that industry will be forced to increase training of local hires and raise levels of pay to attract UK talent. That may be right, but if the argument works in the unskilled sector then why not apply the same rationale to software coders? And what of the jobs that do not need training or an apprenticeship? The decision by No 10 to hire Prof Alison Wolf to look at local training and education is a sign that such questions are not being left, thankfully, to Ms Patel.
Mr Johnson has to balance the interests of leave voters with the economic interests that have traditionally shaped the Conservative party. Nowhere is this more obvious than in social care, where big chains, often owned by private equity, claim that without cheap labour their businesses, squeezed by local authority cuts, might not be viable. Ministers might reclassify social care as skilled labour to enable foreign workers to be imported and resolve a brewing crisis. But there is a wider problem about how jobs that need empathy, kindness and patience are seen in Whitehall. It speaks volumes about the lack of thought given to a workforce needed to look after us in our old age. Mr Johnson has dressed up his policies to be tabloid fodder, with headlines about immigrants having to speak English. This is deplorable, rabble-rousing stuff. However, he ought to be credited for tapping into questions not just of immigration, but more profound ones about the nature of work. Too little attention has been paid to those doing jobs which carry little social prestige. We will notice these workers when they are no longer here. Ministers now have a plan for immigration, and it ought to be used to extol the virtues of foreign labour as well as tackling the prejudice against those who do the work that many would never consider doing.
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