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Debating immigration: ‘They’re taking our jobs’ and other myths

By Hazel Baxter - Posted on 23 May 2013

Human Resource Management research assistant, Hazel Baxter, looks at, and challenges, some popular myths surrounding immigration…

While the issue of immigration is never far from the headlines, recent events have seen it catapulted back to the forefront of the British public’s consciousness.

Through a combination of the UK government’s ‘toughening-up’ of its stance on immigration, increasing Euroscepticism and the potential influx of Bulgarian and Romanian economic migrants, when restrictions are lifted at the end of this year, it has been the subject of renewed debate. Throw into the mix the growing popularity of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), whose sole existence appears to be centred on an anti-immigration stance, and the importance of considering this contentious issue is clear.

Spurred on by ill thought out immigration policies and political posturing, such as Gordon Brown’s ‘British jobs for British workers’, public hostility towards migrant workers has grown considerably since the European Union (EU) expansion in 2004. Having seen public concern manifest in the Lindsey Oil Refinery strikes and more worryingly, attacks on Romanian immigrants in Belfast, the arrival of Bulgarians and Romanians with new EU rights is already being held up as a make or break electoral issue for 2015.

In an emotionally-charged debate it’s understandable that opposing opinions, and a good old argument, create interest. However it would be unforgivable to confuse opinions with truth so, with the debate set to rage on for some time to come, now is probably a good time to dispel these three main myths with cold, hard, facts.

1. ‘They’re taking our jobs’

Understandable in today’s labour market, with high levels of unemployment, this is a valid concern. Yet, numerous studies have shown that migrants from countries such as Poland and Lithuania, have filled jobs where labour shortages existed and employers have praised them for being ‘good workers’.
European migrant workers have the right to work in the UK, as do we in any other European country, regardless of economic conditions. Is it really fair to allow people into the country when they are needed, let them contribute, and then throw them out when they are no longer required?

2. ‘They’re coming to our country to claim our benefits’

Further reforms to Britain’s immigration system to ‘ensure that this country attracts people who will contribute and deters those who will not’ were an important aspect of the recent Queen’s speech

The truth is, EU migrants are unlikely to be ‘benefit scroungers’ as they are only entitled to benefits when employed. Research has also shown them to be less likely than British people to claim state benefits or tax credits, and much less likely to live in social housing.

3. ‘They’re driving wages down’

The argument follows, EU migrants’ willingness to work for less money suppresses average wages, yet evidence has shown they have no statistically significant impact in this respect.

In reality, migrant workers from European countries tend to be paid less, because they take unskilled, and therefore low-paid, jobs.

On closer inspection, the real issue is not the migrant workers themselves, but employers and labour markets that exploit cheap migrant labour pools.

Of course, I can’t predict the impact Bulgarian and Romanian migrant workers will have but, if the evidence of those who’ve gone before them is anything to go on, I’d expect it to be far more positive than scaremongering has suggested. As we review our immigration policies, it is essential that we thoroughly interrogate these myths through informed debate.

What do you think about the language used around immigration? Do you think people speak without thinking or are we getting the balance right? Let us know in the comments below…

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