Dynamic economies need low-skilled migration

Migrant workers have been key to the recent success of intensive horticulture and food processing. Without them, many businesses in these sectors would have gone under. It is time the migration debate acknowledged the contribution made by low-skilled migrants.

Yesterday Yvette Cooper gave a much heralded speech setting out Labour’s immigration policy. It was a calm and straight-forward speech and she did not engage in a rhetorical race to outdo Ukip and Theresa May.

Given Ukip’s misinformation and the government’s false promises over Bulgarian and Romanian immigration, Cooper stuck to facts in a speech that contained many concrete policy proposals.

She elaborated on proposals made by Ed Miliband in his December speech on immigration. She promised stronger action on undocumented immigration, suggesting giving UK Border Agency enforcement teams the power of arrest.

There were also promises to crack down on rogue landlords and increase the enforcement of the National Minimum Wage. And she proposed a stronger requirement to learn English, coupled with increased support for language teaching.

Throughout, however, Cooper articulated a view that the UK needs the world’s brightest and the best migrants, but low skilled migration is undesirable as UK workers are displaced from jobs.

Yet there are many instances where low skilled migration is necessary and an important feature of a dynamic economy.

Take the case of intensive horticulture and food processing, two sectors of the economy that employ high proportions of migrant workers, many of them from Eastern Europe. (Labour Force Survey data estimates that 18 per cent of those working in food processing are migrants who have arrived in the last five years).

Both intensive horticulture and food processing – which comprises nearly a quarter of all UK manufacturing industry – have undergone major structural changes in the last 25 years. Supermarkets’ price competition has intensified and there is an increasingly short timescale between placing orders and when food arrives on the supermarket shelf.

This has placed great pressure on farmers, the more enterprising of whom have responded by undertaking non-agricultural activities that add value to their products. Fruit and vegetables are increasingly cleaned and packed on farms. Outside of the growing season, unprocessed vegetables may be imported to farm –based packing units and processed there.

In recent years there has also been significant consolidation of businesses, with smaller and less enterprising producers going under or taken over.

The very nature of work in the horticulture and food processing sectors requires a very flexible workforce, with peak labour demands that are often seasonal. Both are sectors that employ many agency workers.

Much intensive horticulture and food processing is also located in rural areas where there is no large domestic workforce. The work is often back-breaking, unskilled and lacking prospects for promotion. It is also badly paid and the tight margins – forced on producers by supermarkets – mean that there is little scope for increasing pay much above the National Minimum Wage.

Much employment in intensive horticulture is usually a type of work that the UK-born population is unwilling or unable to do for long periods of time. As a consequence, many employers have found it hard to recruit UK-born workers, and for many years there have been schemes to bring migrant agricultural workers to the UK.

The UK Border Agency currently operates the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, which allows a maximum quota of 21,500 Romanians and Bulgarians to come to the UK for up to six months to work on farms. The Sector Based Scheme allows 3,500 Romanians and Bulgarians to work in food processing.

Both schemes recruit from abroad through a number of employment agencies who also regulate the quality of accommodation for migrant workers.

Of course, this begs many questions about the power of the supermarkets and how we produce food. In introducing Cooper, IPPR director Nick Pearce, who hosted the meeting, stressed that many of the challenges posed by migration cannot be met by migration policy alone.

At present migrant workers, many of whom are prepared to come to the UK to work for short periods of time, have been key to the recent success of intensive horticulture and food processing. Without them, many businesses in these sectors would have gone under.

As consumers, our food prices may well have been higher without migrant workers. It is time the migration debate acknowledged the contribution made by low-skilled migrants.

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