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Rhetoric about 'unskilled' migrants feeds into dangerous stereotypes

Image taken from here

It was announced this month that a fast track immigration route had been opened up by the UK, designed to make post-Brexit international travel easier for ‘prestigious award winners’. The ‘Global Talent Route’ will see successful OSCAR and BAFTA nominees, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Beyoncé Knowles, given ‘VIP’ migration status.

The government boasts that the initiative is “part of the UK’s new points-based immigration system, which will attract the best and brightest to the country depending on the skills they can bring.” Similar types of rhetoric appear elsewhere, with policies promising to attract those with “skills and talent” who “contribute significantly to shared prosperity and mutual understanding.”

The ‘Global Talent Route’ typifies the populist approach which has steered UK migration policy for the last decade. While the substance of the policy does not itself make life worse for migrant and minority groups, it taps into a whole set of divisive myths which certainly do.

Chief among these is the false dichotomy between ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ migrants. These arbitrary categorisations not only fail to differentiate the skills possessed by the individual from the skills required by the job – hiding people’s abilities to upskill and move across the job market. They also play a divisive role in terms of cohesion and integration.

A crude distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants has blighted the immigration debate for a long time, and the rhetoric around 'unskilled migrants' very much taps into this. It fuels narratives which frame newcomers as a problem. And it encourages unfounded tropes about the ‘wrong sorts of immigrants’ – who supposedly drive down standards or take resources from the communities where they choose to settle.

The post-Brexit immigration policy, which will replace free movement with a points-based system, is framed in precisely this way. It has been promoted by Priti Patel as a way to “turn off the tap of cheap, foreign low-skilled labour.” ‘Unskilled’ migrants, such as those from Eastern Europe, are cast as an economic burden.

It is true that certain groups are less likely to be in skilled work. According to the Migration Observatory, 64% of those from EU8 accession states are in ‘less skilled’ jobs, as are 59% of those from EU2 nations. But there is precious little evidence that these migrants contribute less, by way of productivity, than those who end up in higher status professions. Indeed, many are working in jobs which COVID-19 has demonstrated are 'essential' – in care homes or in agriculture and manufacturing.

Our Level Best report, published earlier this year, explored this in the context of the government’s flagship ‘levelling up’ agenda. It used data for all English and Welsh authorities away from major cities. You can read it here.

The findings revealed that, across almost every metric you might care to mention, rises in diversity in the 2010s correlate with better economic outcomes. Places with higher numbers of migrant and ethnic minority groups were more likely to have ‘levelled up’ in terms of employment, deprivation, pay, house prices and GDP. These findings apply just as much to those that tend to be in ‘less skilled’ jobs as to those that usually end up in ‘skilled’ ones.

The chart below, for instance, shows percentage point increases in Gross Value Added (or GVA) between 2011 and 2018, in comparison with changes to the East European population over the same rough period. Specifically, it looks at rises in the proportion with names from EU8 and EU2 accession states – those of Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Baltic, Former Yugoslav, Bulgarian, or Romanian heritage.

As we can see, despite these groups tending to be in 'less skilled' sectors, there is a clear, positive correlation between rises in their size, during the 2010s, and uplifts in GVA (i.e. in productivity). The 27 council areas where the number of Eastern European names grew by more than 1 percentage point saw, on average, a GVA increase of 17%. The 25 local authorities where the Eastern European heritage population fell during the same timespan saw a rise in productivity of just 9 percentage points.

In other words, the relationships between rising diversity and rising productivity, which we identified in Level Best, are just as pronounced among the groups that are most likely to be termed ‘unskilled’. Large inflows of those with EU8 and EU2 names have coincided, during the past decade, with increased productivity at the local level.

Our data suggests that this trend is repeated across all migrant and ethnic minority groups, regardless of skill level. Correlation is not causation, of course. But it is hard to see any evidence of 'less skilled' migrants being a drain on an area.

By playing into the idea that ‘less skilled’ migrants hold back the local economy, the government rhetoric around initiatives like the ‘Global Talent Route’ promotes a dangerous myth. Not only does it strengthen far right narratives and feed into local tensions. It also runs counter to the principle of ‘levelling up’ – a phenomenon which almost always tends to happen when areas are open to diversity and change.


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