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The bias towards migrant workers

24 January 2012

10:19 AM

24 January 2012

10:19 AM

Why are you never served by a Londoner in a London branch of Pret A Manger? I asked this
in the Telegraph recently, and yesterday’s Evening Standard had
a great piece tracking down four who applied, and were rejected without an interview.

Some suspect there is a bias in favour of immigrants: if your name doesn’t sound exotic, game over. I doubt that a company like Pret, whose most valued ingredient is the famous enthusiasm of
its staff, can afford to discriminate in any way. But the wider point is a very serious one: that British employers have come to prefer immigrants, believing that they work harder. And that a bias
for foreign workers is adding to the problems facing Britain’s young unemployed.
 
In general, I do think this is an issue. I’ve been struck by how many employers admit this in private. I once spoke to the chief executive of one FTSE350 company who said that when he needs
temps for his warehouse he only hires Poles, because you can guarantee 100 per cent that they’ll work hard and be grateful for the opportunity. With Brits – especially those coming off
benefits – they may drop out, call in sick, etc. The CEO himself was British, and you can’t accuse him of being racist. It was a question of efficiency: hiring Poles was the safer bet.
Crucially, he now operates through companies with Polish offices which actually fly workers over for the four-week project. British workers – no matter how keen or well-trained – would
not get a look in.
 
This conversation took place at the beginning of the crash, and I thought then: the immigrants may go home, but the appetite for them (and the ability to bus or Ryanair them in) will remain. When
the recovery comes, might a bias towards migrant labour mean that more jobs simply means more foreign-born workers? So it was to prove:

Various factors are at play here. In my Telegraph piece, I pointed the finger at the differential tax wedge. The unreformed welfare system means work pays far less to Brits on benefits than it does
Poles. In some cases, Brits can still be left with just 5p in every extra pound they earn: it’s hard to serve sandwiches with a smile if you’d have to work eight hours to afford one
yourself.

But this is the fault of the government, not the immigrants and not Pret. And Iain Duncan Smith is doing the best that he can to end it. His Universal Credit would ensure workers keep most of the
money they earn. But his reforms will take years. The system is causing misery (and entrenching poverty) now. A bias towards immigrant workers is one of many factors making it a very bad time to be
young and unemployed in Britain right now.


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