We need to apportion blame to the bosses and their business models, rather than scapegoating one group of workers.
We need to apportion blame to the bosses and their business models, rather than scapegoating one group of workers
Ed Miliband has made another immigration speech this morning, one month after the one made by shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper.
Both speeches set out a line that EU migrants are under-cutting the wages of British-born workers. Indeed ‘under-cutting’ has become a stock phrase of all recent Labour speeches on immigration. But what is the evidence for this and what are the solutions?
The impact of immigration on jobs and wages is complex, and statistics are regularly traded between those with strong feelings about migration.The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford argues that we need to distinguish between the effect of immigration on the average wage of all employed people and on the wages of different groups of workers along the wage distribution.
It is possible, for example, that immigration leads to a rise in the average wages, but a drop in wages for specific groups of workers.
UK studies find that immigration has little impact on average wages but a more significant impact on the most poorly-paid. A 2013 study from University College London suggested that a one per cent increase in the share of migrants in the UK-born working age population leads to a 0.6 per cent decline in the wages of the five per cent lowest paid workers.
An earlier study from IPPR draws the same conclusions – very large movements of people have a small impact on the pay packets of the most badly paid people.
Of course, the Labour Party and anyone concerned with social justice needs to be concerned about the wages and conditions of low paid workers. This is essential at a time when in-work poverty is increasing. But I believe it is wrong for Labour to talk constantly about one group of workers under-cutting another.
Firstly, low wages are an everyday condition in parts of the UK where there has been little migration. Wages in all sectors of the labour market are lowest in the North East, the region where there is least migration.
Low pay and zero hours’ contracts have become the norm for many workers, irrespective of levels of immigration. If every migrant left the North East today, pay levels would as likely as not remain the same.
My second objection to the term under-cutting is that it is emotive and sets worker against worker. We need to remember that wage levels are set in the boardroom and not by EU migrants. We need to apportion blame to the bosses and their business models, rather than scapegoating one group of workers.
Decent Jobs Week is a TUC-led event that aims to raise awareness about workers in precarious and low paid jobs who are struggling to make ends meet.
Its activities argue for a Living Wage and secure terms of employment. We should be supporting its activities and the trade unions who stand up for workers’ rights. Sustainable solutions to low pay will be achieved by standing together. Let us stop using ‘under-cutting’, the phrase of divide and rule.
Jill Rutter is a contributing editor at Left Foot ForwardLike 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.