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One Day Without Us: Why the UK Needs Migrants

“…I think this sort of argument - that, somehow, immigrants are taking jobs and are leaving a load of people unemployed in Britain - doesn’t really stack up.”

So said George Osborne in November last year, no longer chancellor, and no longer needing to mind his words. There are clear tensions between this statement and both Theresa May’s current stance on immigration, and the Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto pledge to reduce net immigration to the tens of thousands.

If the Cameron-Osborne Conservative government had really wanted to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands they would have at least reduced net migration of non-EU citizens, which for the year to June was 196,000. Not only is this figure many times more than the government’s manifesto pledge, but it is also greater than the number of EU immigrants - 189,000. This reluctance to take action on immigration is probably best explained by the importance of immigration to the economy. The employment rate is at a record high, meaning immigrants are filling roles that wouldn’t be filled by the domestic workforce.

Since the Brexit vote, the Cameron-Osborne reluctance to cut down on immigration seems to have been justified. Company bosses have already reported that they are struggling to fill jobs in shops, factories, and hospitals. Curbing immigration will undermine the employment growth that has been at the heart of the UK’s economic performance over the past few years. Too small a number of immigrants will also impact on tax revenues, potentially squeezing public services even further.

Mercer, a human resources firm, has done some number crunching. They found that if immigration is cut to 40,000 per year (i.e. to tens of thousands, as pledged by the Conservative party), then the workforce will likely grow by only 1% by 2030, while the population will grow by 6%. Such cuts to immigration would pose a serious threat to the economy, with both lower GDP growth and the burden of an ageing workforce falling on relatively fewer workers. We would see an even more overstretched and understaffed health sector, with even tighter public finances. This would mean making difficult choices, primarily around cuts to health services. All of this would be self-inflicted, caused by having an immigration policy based on rhetoric and short-term political gain rather than the real needs of the labour market and essential services.

Beyond the economic issues, there are also the human consequences of growing anti-immigration sentiment in the UK. Immediately following the EU referendum, there was a 41% increase of reports of hate crime compared with the year before. A Polish woman was booed on Question Time when she said she no longer felt welcome in the UK. With the election of Trump in the USA, and the march of Marine Le Pen in France, xenophobia is undoubtedly on the rise.

This is why the One Day Without Us campaign is holding a national day of action on Monday 20th February. The campaign aims to highlight the key contributions migrants make to the UK: enabling core services to function, adding dynamism to the economy, and culturally enriching the country as a whole. The premise of One Day Without Us is to get people to imagine one day without immigrant workers, showing how essential they to the basic functioning of our society. These workers are our lawyers, economists, and scientists. They are also those who cook, clean, and care for us, and make huge sacrifices on a daily basis in looking after our love ones. While the campaign will no doubt be criticised as one of 'remoaning metropolitan elitism' (despite the fact that action is being taken not only in London but across the country, and is centring the voices of low paid workers), it highlights a huge problem for anti-immigration arguments: how can we function without them?

The May government, unable act as Cameron did (blame the EU but do nothing), has unenviably tough decisions ahead with regard to our departure from the EU. One option is to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment, reducing the number of immigrants and doing huge damage to both our economy and the social fabric of our country. Another option is accepting the crucial economic and cultural role of immigrants in our economy and making a positive case for their place in the UK.