Through the internet, you can hire a cement mixer, a floor sander or a light vibrating Wacker plate. Should you wish to hold on to your Wacker plate for three months, you’ll probably end up paying a little over £1,000. Whether this represents good value for money depends, presumably, on how much sand or gravel you are planning to compact. Regardless of cost, however, the hiring process is remarkably convenient. At the end of the three months, your Wacker plate goes back to where it came from, leaving you merely to admire the fruits of your work.
Wacker plates are, of course, inanimate objects, lacking hopes and aspirations. Humans, by contrast, are sentient beings. Yet the Government appears to have cooked up a plan to hire foreign workers loosely based on the Wacker plate model. Having identified, belatedly, that the UK is desperately short of HGV drivers and chicken pluckers, our leaders have made available 10,500 three-month work visas. Five thousand will be granted to foreign fuel tanker and food lorry drivers. The remainder are supposed to guarantee families a turkey at Christmas.
If I were a would-be guest worker, a proposal that regards me merely as a “machine” to be “returned to sender” after three months would not seem terribly attractive. True, I might appreciate earning a few extra pounds ahead of the festive season. But would I really want to pay for the return journey, the accommodation and the separation from my loved ones in order to drive a truck up and down a country in which motorway service stations are not known for their culinary ambitions and in which poultry farms offer work which sometimes amounts to no more than plucking hell?
The UK’s success — and I use that word deliberately — in attracting immigrants over the last two decades is a great example of workers “voting with their feet”.
For many such new arrivals, Britain was a land of opportunities they couldn’t easily grab at home. Yes, in some cases, foreign workers threatened previously cosy domestic trades where competition had gone missing in action. And, yes, immigrants can place additional pressure on public services. Ultimately, however, a constructive unwritten contract typically binds immigrants and their host country together: work hard, be entrepreneurial, focus on your kids’ education, be a good citizen and, in exchange, opportunities will open up for you or, at the very least, for your children. One of them might even end up winning the US Open.
My wife is the daughter of immigrants and is fully attuned to the transformational impact that education can have on immigrant communities. Having gone through school and university, our three daughters are now gainfully employed. One is involved in helping companies come to terms with climate change. None of this would have happened had my father-in-law been denied the opportunity to set up a modest business selling colour TVs at a time when most households were still watching in glorious monochrome. In effect, my father-in-law was given hope. Britain offered opportunities for those who were prepared to put in the long hours. Would he have come to these shores if the only things on offer were three-month contracts to drive HGVs or eviscerate chickens? Probably not. He was more than just a Wacker plate for hire.
Over the last two decades, the UK created an economic ecosystem based on open borders. The number of EU nationals working in the UK rose from fewer than 500,000 to a peak more recently of around 2.4 million. Yet, despite this supposedly threatening influx, the unemployment rate mostly fell. True, the growth of zero-hours contracts meant that, for some, working conditions deteriorated: worsening conditions, however, say more about the nature of work and the role of technology in recruiting workers (think of Uber or Deliveroo) than the role of immigrants.
Only now are we seeing just how fragile that ecosystem is, thanks in large part to both Brexit and the pandemic. My friends across the Channel, however, assure me that the UK labour market shortages are, for the most part, a peculiarly British disease: as Erik Nielsen, UniCredit’s chief economist, notes: “Just to be sure there is no confusion, none of this is hitting Continental Europe.” It’s almost as if a dubious political imperative has collided with economic reality. In the process, our economy is being whacked.
Stephen King is HSBC’s Senior Economic Adviser and author of Grave New World (Yale)
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