A common myth of those on the right, one even some on the left fall for, is that immigrants compete against locals for jobs and help push down wages. Neither is entirely correct and indeed restricting immigration can end up leading to less jobs being available for locals.
Firstly we need to get around the Victorian era view that everyone should be working. Or the notion that the number of jobs available in a country is some sort of fixed constant. Neither is true. The number of jobs available varies depending on a host of factors, such as the state of the economy (whether or not you are in a recession), inward investment (damn foreigners coming over here, giving people jobs), government policy, public spending, trade deals (i.e. leaving the largest single trading block in the world is going result in lots of job losses) and the ease by which employers can recruit.
If an employer can’t find enough employees to do the work, they can’t half run their business. That means half the harvest being left to rot. A pub can’t hire enough staff, what do you propose they do? Have the staff just man the tills, but the customers have to pour their own pints and cook their own meals. As I’ve discussed before, restricting immigration serves to create a massive trade barrier, which can actually reduce the number of jobs available to locals. In short migrants can create far more jobs that they take.
Also a country is not a unified job market. Yes there are currently lots of vacancies in agriculture right now, which is good news if you live in the countryside, near one of these farms, have relevant experience and won’t be busy during the harvest season. But you can’t really expect someone from a city, with no farming experience to move to the countryside, pay rent in two locations for 3 months of minimum wage work. Similarly, it hardly matters how many job vacancies there are in London, if you live in Scunthorpe. And an employer would want to be offering a lot more than minimum wage (and a fairly long term contract) to justify the costs of moving to London.
Similarly, there’s a shortage of truck drivers. So good news if you are unemployed truck driver. But not much good for anyone else. Training a new truck driver to meet these shortages is expensive and come with practical problems (lots of rookie HGV drivers hitting the roads all at once, what’s the worst that could happen). And, like so many things, a lot of this work is seasonal, so what do they do for the remaining 6 months of the year?
Also, is this sudden brexit and pandemic induced demand for farm/drivers permanent? Automation and technology, the impact of post-brexit trade deals (which are likely to screw over farmers and manufacturing), could mean job losses in these sectors at some point in the near future. There’s not much point having someone train for a new career only to lose that job in a few years time.
And this isn’t Stalinist Russia. What if people just don’t want to do these jobs? I drove a single axle lorry once (a quirk of my Irish driving licence) and I found it really daunting and I won’t want to do it as a career. Working in agriculture you need to be an out door’s sort of person, fairly physically fit with a good constitution, otherwise you just ain’t going to cut it (and this is what farmers say, majority of UK recruits quit within the first day). If you aren’t a people person, you ain’t going to cut it in the hospitality industry.
Plus, as I’ve also discussed before, by restricting immigration you run the risk of companies moving overseas or automating processes (in which case they don’t just use robots to replace the foreign workers they can’t hire, they’ll fire all the British workers as well). Far more jobs have been lost to these two factors than any amount migrants could ever hope to take. And also one needs to consider the reverse also now applies. UK workers cannot easily travel to Europe for work, as has often been a life line for some when times were tough. And for some UK industries, such as the entertainment industry, this is likely to be crippling. Inevitably its going to cost more jobs than it saves.
As for wages, you are talking about creating an artificial shortage of workers in order to drive up salaries. That’s a terrible idea. Often times the wage an employer pays is driven by the demand side. If the price of your morning coffee or lunch goes up 10p or 20p I think most will just swallow that, particularly if they know its going to pay for workers salaries. But if goes up too much people will eventually start bringing in their own coffee and sandwiches, reducing demand. And higher salaries can lead to higher rates of inflation (which means the cost of living goes up and workers will want an even bigger pay rise in a few months time). This was a big problem in the UK back in the 70’s prior to the UK joining the EU.
Worse still, while an artificial shortage might make it easier for workers to demand a higher salary in good economic times. In a recession, the reverse can be true, as employers can play workers off one another and drive down salaries. This is sort of the whole point of a minimum wage. It sets a floor for wages to prevent workers being exploited.
Studies have shown that the impact of immigrant on wages is tiny and arguably counter balanced by the other positive factors mentioned (plus a modest increase in the existing minimum wage in the UK would large cancel out any negatives anyway). Furthermore, providing workers with better welfare protection, means an employer is going to have to treat their employees better, if they want to retain their workforce.
But why do so many believe these myths? Well because its more politically acceptable to argue against immigration for some supposed (if entirely fake) economic reasons, rather than the real reason – that many who advance these arguments are racist or xenophobic. And note this can be a particular issue when it comes to those from ethnic minorities (white people do not have a monopoly on racism, just look at Priti
racist Patel). By pretending to cry crocodile tears at the poor honest workers (whose taxes they’ve just put up and they’ve refused to increase the minimum wage), it means they can pretend that their racism and bigotry has some sort of intellectual economic argument behind it. Even thought it is really no different from the sort xenophobic myths that have been spouted for centuries.
This is why the Tories current talk of turning the UK into a high wage economy should be ringing alarm bells, particularly if you are a low wage worker. Based on the experience in countries like Dubai, Japan, Singapore or parts of the US, this will likely end up with one of two scenarios. Firstly, significant outsourcing of low wage jobs out of the UK (call centres, back office, agriculture, manufacturing, etc.) alongside increasingly heavy use of automation (eliminating jobs across whole sectors).
Alternatively, those strict immigration rules are just ignored, either officially (with exemptions granted for certain industries) or unofficially (juiced in party donors get a free pass to ignore immigration rules). Which just means local workers end up being driven out of an industry completely (as has happened for example in meat packing in the US or construction jobs in the gulf states). Granted from time to time (generally around election times), governments will have to “discover” how their strict immigration rules aren’t working and lock a couple of kids in cages, maybe deport a few people. But its all just for show. Its worth noting that during Trump’s tenure, the number of migrant workers in the US workforce didn’t significantly reduce.
In either case, the end result is that many of the low wage entry level jobs simply disappear, turning a large chuck of society into an underclass of the unemployed, underemployed and unemployable. And, to make matters worse, remember a high wage economy means a high cost of living. In quite a few of the countries I mentioned there’s a sort of cultural apartheid at work. The poor are effectively excluded from much of society, due to their lack of income (they can’t eat out, go to the theatre, frequent certain bars and are likely to be picked up by the cops just for walking around a posh neighbourhood).
The reality is that immigration is a normal part of the job market. Restricting immigration will actually have the opposite effect that’s assumed, it will serve to reduce the number of available jobs and drive down wages. The trouble is the Tories (like so many anti-immigrant parties) have to stick with their current plan of gaslighting the public with the promise of unicorns for all at some ill-defined future date. Brexit is effectively now the UK’s state religion. Reversing course is simply not an option.