Unless you want to pay more for food and social care, EU migrants are here to stay

Instead of making symbolic promises to stem benefit tourism, progressives should consider how to build good community relations in areas that are receiving EU migrants.

One week before the elections for the European Parliament, the media and UKIP have made much of the immigration data contained within the monthly labour market statistics. There is nothing in them that is new or surprising, but the data is being used by UKIP to its electoral advantage.

However today’s data tells us as much about food production and about fissured workplaces as it does about immigration. It is vital that next week and over the next few month progressives consider these wider issues, rather than come up with knee-jerk reactions to UKIP.

Every month the Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishes a broad range of labour market statistic on employment rates and earnings. For a number of years this release has included a breakdown of employment rates by country of birth groups, but this data has rarely been picked up by the media.

Today’s statistics show that in the first quarter of 2014, some 140,000 Bulgarians and Romanians were in work in the UK. In absolute numbers, this is an increase of 25 per cent compared with the first quarter of 2013. In absolute numbers there has also been an increase in the number of employed migrants from the eight countries who joined the EU in 2004, with 802,000 people migrants, an increase of 17 per cent compared with the first quarter of 2013.

Today about 3 per cent of people employed in the UK were born in the EU’s newest member states which joined in 2004 and 2007.

These trends have been in the public arena for many months.

Digging deeper into labour market statistics gives a more complete picture of the employment of EU migrants. Many of them are employed in low paid jobs and in sectors that find it difficult to recruit UK-born workers, which include intensive agriculture, social care and retail.

Much immigration into the towns of rural England is now intimately bound up with the way we produce and consume food in the UK. The 25 years have seen a revolution in food production. This in part has comprised an intensification of farming, with lengthening of growing seasons for crops such as potatoes and vegetables grown under glass or plastic. Alongside this there has been increased consumption of processed and pre-prepared food.

These changes sit alongside the introduction of ‘just-in-time production’ ,where food is not produced to stock, rather to meet the exact amount demanded by a customer. ‘Just-in-time’ requires a labour market flexibility. If demand is high in one area of the business, additional temporary workers may be required. Employment agencies may supply the temporary workers, or a business may hire the workers themselves, but on short-term or zero-hours contracts.

The intense price competition between supermarkets forces them to keep their costs as low as possible. They do this by squeezing suppliers – their power as monopsonies enables them to get away with this. In turn suppliers are forced to keep wage costs as low as possible, which means the National Minimum Wage for workers.

These changes have all generated a significant numbers of unskilled and poorly paid jobs and in parts of the country without large numbers of unemployed Brits to fill these vacancies. It is largely migrants from the EU who have filled these gaps. They enable us to eat cheap strawberries out-of-season, and keep down the price of UK-produced food.

Unless the British public wants to pay more for food and social care, EU migrants are here to stay. Instead of making symbolic promises to stem benefit tourism – and there is little evidence of this – progressives should consider how to build good community relations in areas that are receiving EU migrants. Some areas have achieved this and two sets of factors seem important in managing the tensions and change associated with migration.

First, meaningful social contact between migrants and longer settled residents is important, in workplaces, schools and through leisure activities. Such contact helps build friendships and humanise the stranger.

A second set of attributes that help areas manage the changes associated with migration are the qualities of political leadership. This is important in relation to the messages that it sends out, as well as policy and planning to deal with sources of tension, for example, neglected properties in the private rental sector and shortages of school places.

Our responses next Friday morning should focus on social integration, on leadership and on making migration work for everyone.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. Her book on integration and social cohesion will be published by Policy Press in 2015

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.