Iain Duncan Smith is not “daring to tell the truth” about migrant workers

Iain Duncan-Smith's 'bravery' on immigration may have played well on the Daily Mail, but it ignored several inconvenient facts.

Ruth Grove-White is a policy officer at the Migrants’ Rights Network

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has reignited the migrant workers debate, with controversial comments reminiscent of Gordon Brown’s disastrous statement advocating ‘British jobs for British workers’ back in 2007.

Mr Duncan Smith’s provocative speech, delivered in Madrid yesterday, was prominently trailed in the Daily Mail, which expressed relief that the former Tory leader is ‘daring to tell the truth’ about migrant workers. However, a closer look suggests that we may be being led astray once more on this issue.

The bottom line in Duncan Smith’s argument is that British welfare reforms can never succeed without tighter immigration controls to squash the competition for semi- and low-skilled work faced by resident job-seekers.

His view is that British businesses got too used to ‘falling back’ on employing migrant workers rather than Brits under New Labour – and that without more immigration controls ‘we will risk losing another generation to dependency and hopelessness’.

Let’s deal with the question of which migrants we are talking about first. The fastest growing group of low-skilled migrant workers in the UK over the past decade has been people from Eastern Europe, whose numbers rose from 4,000 to 239,000 between 2002 and 2011. EU freedom of movement rights allow them to come here to work.

The UK no longer has any low-skilled work route from outside the EU, although significant numbers of people born outside the EU are working in low-skilled occupations in the UK. However, this group are primarily family members of migrants or Brits, people who have settled or naturalised here, or Brits born abroad. All this means that there are many people working here whose numbers the Government simply cannot limit, whatever Duncan Smith would like to see.

But let’s not panic, because evidence that migration has negative impacts on low-skilled British job-seekers is mixed.

Although low-skilled migrant worker numbers did rise substantially under the last government, there is mixed evidence about whether they had a displacement effect on resident workers, with many researchers struggling to find the evidence for this. Although there is some evidence (pdf) of slight wage depression at the bottom end of the labour market, this is not overwhelming.

Going back to Mr Duncan Smith, why, given all this, might he have launched such an attack on labour immigration today? He has just launched his £5bn Work Programme, which aims to help 2.4 million people get into work amid major cuts to the welfare bill. Given the UK’s faltering economic growth and high unemployment levels there are plenty of reasons why his major reforms might fail to deliver – but they have little to do with immigration controls.

Much more important than waving a stick at migrant workers and encouraging UK plc to discriminate against them in favour of Brits would be to take a long hard look at why some major sectors of the economy including hospitality, financial services, and healthcare have become rather dependent upon migrant workers.

Much wider regulatory measures would need to be put in place to make many of these jobs appealing to the British workforce, including addressing minimum wage enforcement and working conditions. Long-term investment in ensuring that the skills needed by employers can be found in the residential workforce will also be needed.

Unfortunately, there is no quick solution to the problem of unemployment in the UK. But we should know by now that blaming immigration is not the answer either.

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