Migration: what has been its impact on low-skilled employment?

In 2013 there were around 13 million people in low-skilled jobs in the UK, of whom 2 million were born abroad, according to a report from the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee. But as migrants have moved into unskilled work UK-born workers have moved into more highly-skilled occupations, the committee found.

Picture credit: Luke and Kate Bosman

Last year the Government asked the Migration Advisory Committee, chaired by Professor Sir David Metcalf, to investigate the factors driving the growth of migrant labour in low-skilled occupations.

Its report, published in July, finds the employment rate of UK-born workers was practically unchanged by the arrival of migrants from Eastern Europe after 2004. The impact of migration on GDP, on productivity and on the price of services such as cleaning and gardening was tiny.

Migrants and non-migrants made very similar contributions to the Government’s fiscal position between 2000 and 2011.

Between 1997 and 2013, the number in low-skilled occupations remained roughly the same, with UK-born workers in these jobs decreasing by 1.1 million and migrants increasing by 1.1 million.
But at the same time, the number of UK workers in high-skilled work increased by two million, more than offsetting the decline in low-skilled employment for these people. The number of migrants in high-skilled work also increased, by 1.3 million.

Around a third of the overall employment increase (almost 1.1 million) was accounted for by UK-born workers. This was because employment of UK-born in high skilled work increased by 2 million , which more than offset the 1.1 million decline in UK born employment in low skilled work.Migrantemployment increased by 1.1 million in low skilled occupationsand by 1.3 million in high-skilled work.

Total employment increased by approximately 3.3 million during the 16 years to 2013. Employment in plant, process and machine operation decreased by more than any other occupation, by 550. Almost the whole of this contraction was accounted for by a fall in numbers of UK-born workers, with migrant employment in these trades increasing slightly.

But employment in caring and personal service occupations increased by 750,000 – the larges increase for any low-skilled occupation. Almost three quarters of that was due to increased employment of UK-born workers.

In elementary administration and service occupations, the number of UK-born workers decreased by 320,000 while the number of foreign-born workers rose by 340,000.

Migration brought a number of benefits. Owners of companies in labour-intensive sectors such as food manufacturing, agriculture and restaurants, who had struggled to get an adequate supply of UK-born staff, benefited from the arrival of overseas workers.

Highly-skilled workers who were born in the UK may also have benefited, as migration allowed them to specialise in more highly-paid jobs. And migration also helped to make the labour market more flexible and mobile, as migrant workers were more prepared to move, to live in their workplaces or to do shift work than native workers.

There were also costs to migration,with the composition of the population in some areas changing rapidly. This put pressure on health, education and transport services, and may have had implications for social cohesion in some places.

The housing market was put under pressure, with increased problems involving houses of multiple occupation as well as a slightly lower probability for British-born families of getting social housing.

There was also a small negative impact on the wages of the low-paid. The committee said this raised issues about levels of compliance and enforcement of the National Minimum Wage. It said inspections were insufficiently robust and penalties too low. On average, an employer could expect a visit from HMRC once every 250 years and a prosecution once in a million years.

But the biggest gains went to the migrants themselves. Their income in the UK was much higher than in their home countries and their extended families might benefit from remittances.

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