On 1st January, restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian migration to the UK were lifted. This prompted a wave of panic about how our jobs would be threatened and the benefits system would struggle to take the extra strain. The tabloid press bombarded us with statistics about how British shores would be inundated with migrants, and images of eastern-European workers boarding packed coaches en route to our green and pleasant land adorned almost every page.
This week, figures were released revealing that unemployment levels and the number claiming Jobseeker's Allowance had both fallen more sharply than predicted. These things take time, but if new migrants are going to have the effect on our labour market envisioned by many, they are already facing an uphill battle.
The right-leaning and left-leaning press will both propagate their own versions of events and the truth may never emerge from the media mist. With a broad press and our nation's wonderfully free right to an opinion, it is sometimes hard to know what to think. However, I personally believe that immigration can have a positive effect on our labour market and that the tabloid press are doing little more than inciting racial tensions through exaggerated coverage. In an attempt to present one of many sides to the story, below are some popular statements regarding immigration and employment, followed by a hopefully reasoned and empirical response.
Immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria flooded in when the restrictions were lifted.
I recently came across an article in The Daily Mail claiming that following the lifting of restrictions, flights to the UK out of Romania and Bulgaria were almost completely full. I then read an article in The Huffington Post that told me that: “On the flight into Luton airport on the 1 January…only two Romanians came to the UK to take advantage of the lifting of border restrictions…” Only time will tell what the true figures are, but the Romanian Ambassador predicts that fewer than 30 Romanians have arrived in Britain since the restrictions were lifted. (Source.)
The right-leaning press have issued a myriad of statistics and predictions about the continued influx. MigrationWatch's report predicting that between 30,000 and 70,000 Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants would arrive each year is a popular reference point. (Source.) In some places, this figure is as high as 300,000. (Source.)
The left-leaning press responded with very different figures. The Guardian cited a Migration Matters report which suggested that the figure would probably peak at around 20,000. (Source.) Labour MP and chairman of the Home Affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, added that there is no evidence to support claims that eastern European migrants have "rushed out and bought tickets" to the UK. (Source.)
With apparently fewer immigrants arriving than expected we are left with fewer people to blame for the struggling jobs market. We are also left with fewer skilled foreign workers and less trade with foreign companies.
Immigrants are a drain on the benefits system.
The foreign migrant who refuses to work and sponges off the state is a popular stereotype. If this depiction were an accurate portrayal of the majority of foreign nationals then there would be a devastating effect on our economy and labour market. Thankfully, research suggests it's not. A recent UCL study found that since 2000, European immigrants have paid 34% more into the system through taxes than they take out. (Non-Europeans have made a 2% net contribution.) And UK nationals? In the same period, British people took out 11% more than they paid in taxes. (Source.) The study also found that immigrants are 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits. (Source.)
I haven't actually been able to find any statistics to refute the above. There are plenty of articles, like this one, which offer seemingly alarming statistics about the number of immigrants claiming benefits. However, when put into the context of the net contribution immigrants make to society, they seem somewhat irrelevant. Out of context, statistics can be a very dangerous tool.
Immigrants are taking our jobs.
It's a seemingly logical conclusion: More immigrants means more immigrants in jobs that could be taken by UK nationals. The reality is, as with any political debate, far more nebulous. More citizens means more demand for services, which requires the creation of more jobs. The addition of skilled workers, entrepreneurs and trade links can also create jobs. The high number of international students further skews the figures- foreign nationals who are not competing for jobs nor claiming benefits. (Yet, providing a large proportion of UK university funding.) Despite this ambiguity, studies have found that "there is no evidence that EU migrants affect the labour market performance of native-born workers." (Source.) The report by the London School of Economics adds: "On balance, the evidence for the UK labour market suggests that fears about the consequences of rising immigration have been exaggerated."
However, we still often read reports to the contrary from certain areas of the press. This Daily Express article reports that immigrants 'snatched' 160,000 jobs from British-born workers in the five years prior to 2012. The Daily Mail has also suggested that the UK is too reliant on foreign workers with one in five skilled jobs filled by immigrants. (Source.)
The only conclusion I can draw from all of this is that when presented with such a range of evidence by the media, I can't really know the facts. Regardless of what the real figures are however, the press has a moral responsibility to be aware of the influence it can have on its audience. I'm not implying some kind of Orwellian indoctrination, but when one gets all their news from one source, it's easy to absorb the very strong opinions of its writers. Forget Big Brother, The Daily Mail is far scarier. Maybe I will never know the real facts, but I like to think I remain open-minded and tolerant, rather than vilifying and stereotyping entire groups of people. I'll leave that to the tabloids.