Should UK firms prioritise UK workers?

There was a rather lame joke doing the rounds recently after it emerged that Britain could soon be invaded by tropical mosquitoes, potentially spreading deadly diseases. “All those foreign mosquitoes, taking our mosquitoes’ jobs, stealing our women,” went the refrain.

But the underlying sentiment has not been far from the headlines lately. Earlier this month, employment minister Chris Grayling urged British employers to hire “surly”, hoodie-wearing young Britons, rather than experienced eastern Europeans.

In a speech to think-tank Policy Exchange, he said:

“It’s easy to hire someone from eastern Europe with five years’ experience who has had the get-up-and-go to cross a continent in search for work. But those who look closer to home find gems, too. Very often the surly young man in the hoodie who turns up looking unwilling to work can turn into an excited and motivated employee.”

But that certainly wasn’t the experience of Carl Cooper, who runs a marketing firm for car dealers. He offered seven people the chance to work at his company after advertising at the local job centre.

None turned up, and four out of the seven claimed it was because “it was raining”. Cooper called the jobseekers “a bunch or workshy layabouts” who would “rather stay on the dole than work”.

Hitting the headlines

Stories like this always make headlines, and newspapers’ radar does not always pick up on more constructive programmes, such as the latest announcement from sandwich chain Pret-a-Manger.

It has announced plans to create 550 jobs and build links with UK schools to fill those roles, saying: “We will be reaching out to the careers department of every school in the country in 2012 to encourage British school-leavers to work for us.”

Pret had previously made headlines for the wrong reasons, after Grayling deemed it ‘unacceptable’ that many of its branches only employed foreign workers. Pret justly pointed out that European Union law means that employers cannot discriminate in favour of British applicants, claiming: “Our jobs are open to everyone legally able to work in the UK, no matter what their background.”

What the reports say…

How justified is it to blame the increase in employment of migrant workers on high levels of unemployment among native UK workers? Two recent, but conflicting, reports make some suggestions. In January this year, the government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) published a report suggesting a link between non-EU migrants entering the UK to work, and job losses among UK workers. It said:

“100 additional non-EU migrants may cautiously be estimated to be associated with a reduction in employment of 23 native workers.” In short, for every 100 non-EU migrant workers who enter the UK, 23 native workers find themselves unemployed.

The second report, published by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, concluded that increased immigration was not associated with growing numbers of people claiming Jobseekers Allowance. The researchers used National Insurance number registration data and local unemployment figures to draw comparisons. It said:

“We find no association between migrant inflows and claimant unemployment,” and “we find no evidence of a greater impact during periods of low growth or the recent recession.”

Which one should we believe? According to data journalist David Reed, it is possible to make two completely different assumptions depending on the data set you use. On his blog, Reed says:

“If there is no correlation between migrant workers and domestic unemployment, then the fact that benefit claimant numbers have risen points to underlying skills and training problems in the UK workforce. That requires long-term strategies based around education and support for employers running in-job training programmes.

If there is a correlation, the solution could be as simple as stopping non-EU worker migration into the UK in order to protect the domestic workforce. That is a quicker fix and also has the advantage of reducing how much the government pays out in benefits.”

Time for figures…

Looking at the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics, the number of non-UK workers in the UK between October and December 2011 was 2.6m, compared to 2.4m for the same period in 2010. Among those workers, 692,000 came from Eastern Europe, compared with 609,000 for the October-to-December period in 2010.

Yes, these figures show that the number of migrant workers is on the increase, but it is also worth considering how many of those workers would otherwise be registered as unemployed in the UK: the employment rate for eastern European workers in the UK is 82.2%, compared with 70.8% for UK workers suggesting a high proportion that enter the UK are in jobs rather than claiming benefits.

Of course, the easier solution for the government is to make a grand gesture about protecting the domestic workforce – many of its recent announcements around work experience schemes and apprenticeships support that. But it is very, very difficult to prove a direct correlation between young British workers struggling to find work and an increase in migrant workers. As long as recruiters are protected by law to do so, they will continue to hire the best person for the job – whatever their nationality.


  1. Paul September 16, 2012 at 8:35 am

    Every country should employ their own first, do you think foreigners would go out of their way to help British candidates?

  2. Adrian Brook October 5, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    If my business requires staff and I have to choose who gets the job, Then the person most likely to turn up and do a good would be employed regardless of their ethnicity. That’s why I run a business and not a charity.

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