Socialist Worker

British workers don’t benefit from less immigration

As the pandemic forced many migrant workers to return to their home countries, Socialist Worker asks if British workers have benefited. Are low paid workers finally getting the upper hand as labour shortages hit parts of the economy?

Issue No. 2758

Protester stands for migrant rights during Donald Trumps 2017 visit to London

Protester stands for migrant rights during Donald Trump's 2017 visit to London. (Pic: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr)

Stories of businesses unable to fill vacancies have been growing since the easing of lockdown restrictions earlier this year.

Some bosses now say they are having to increase pay to attract staff.

Even the widely hated Tory Brexiteer and Wetherspoon pub boss, Tim Martin, is urging the government to let in more European migrants to fill posts.

Some bosses are indeed finding it hard to recruit new staff.

And one industry in particular has been hit hard—hospitality.

Here the rapid reopening of pubs, restaurants and hotels is forcing employers to compete to quickly hire workers.

But last year, as the pandemic took hold, even many skilled workers decided to leave the industry. Some were laid off during lockdowns and now prefer the increased security of other careers.


Many returned to Europe and seemed reluctant to come back.

But so far the recruitment crisis has led to only a small increase in median average wages for newly advertised pub and restaurant jobs.

Pay is up very slightly from £9.25 to £9.35 an hour—though a particular shortage of chefs has driven their pay higher.

There have been steeper pay rises in a few other industries, including road haulage.

That reflects a long term difficulty recruiting qualified drivers to work in a low status industry.

Workers won’t benefit if Covid and racism drive out migrants
Workers won’t benefit if Covid and racism drive out migrants
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This problem has been exacerbated by a year of lockdowns in which no specialist driving tests took place, and so no new drivers’ licences were issued.

Here too the crisis has been compounded by European workers leaving Britain and not yet returning and by workers leaving, looking for less gruelling jobs.

Yet rather than offering better working conditions, more secure contracts and long term pay incentives, many freight bosses prefer to offer only a modest improvement in hourly rates.

That reflects the low profit margins many logistics companies have, despite the growth of online shopping.

So even in sectors where pay for some is rising, the picture is patchy and includes relatively small increases for most.

Elsewhere,there are few signs of pay rising above inflation.

That’s even in parts of the economy that are also recruiting heavily—including warehousing, retail, cleaning and less skilled driving roles.

In the first three months of this year, pay increases across the private sector averaged at just 2 percent, though the curve is rising and that may mean higher rises next quarter.

Meanwhile, in April the official inflation rate doubled to 1.5 percent, up from 0.7 percent the month before. And the more accurate RPI rate recorded inflation at 2.9 percent a year.


Particularly for workers in industries that face a recruitment crisis, this is an excellent time to make back some of the money lost during years of austerity.

Unions should certainly aim to capitalise on the bosses’ problems.

But the most important lesson for the left here is that relying on a reduced supply of labour to boost wages is no real strategy at all.

Some union leaders for years have played along with the idea of “British jobs for British workers”.

If only we could stop foreigners coming in and undercutting pay, indigenous workers would be better off, they argued.

But the reduction in the size of workforce they hoped for is now a reality, and yet most workers are seeing little or no benefit.

That should point the unions in another direction —only united workers’ struggle can produce a long term boost to wages across the entire class.

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