by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 24
February 2021

Where have all the workers gone?

New data shows the biggest outflow of foreign born workers on record
by Peter Franklin
The number of foreign born workers is down by almost 800,000 on last year. Credit: Getty

Will life return to normal once lockdown is lifted? A big part of that depends on getting workers back into work again.

But what if they’ve gone? According to a report for Reuters by David Milliken, ONS figures published yesterday show that the number of foreign born workers is down by almost 800,000 on last year.

These are initial figures, which may be revised given the nature of the data, but if broadly accurate they’d amount to the biggest outflow on record.

It’s hard to be sure what exactly is going on because, as Milliken points out on Twitter, the pandemic has stopped the collection of migration data at ports and airports.

However, it wouldn’t be surprising if the pandemic had prompted a mass emigration. Many of the sectors that are especially dependent on overseas workers — like the hospitality sector — have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. In times of crisis, it’s also natural for people to want to return home — especially if international travel is restricted.

Finally, wherever they’re from, it’s worth bearing in mind where the low paid workers who keep our global cities running can afford to live. Getting by on a minimum wage in an expensive city isn’t easy at the best of times, but under lockdown conditions the hardships multiply.

It’s an open question as to how many of pubs, restaurants and other shuttered workplaces reopen once lockdown is lifted. But there’s a further question as to what proportion of the displaced workforce returns. Many workers may not want to and others may not be allowed to — especially if their home countries are still subject to travel restrictions. The implementation of tougher immigration policies in the wake of Brexit will also have its effect.

On the other hand, the rise of remote working — as boosted by the pandemic — could allow overseas workers to return to the UK workforce without actually having to return to the UK. Then again, any jobs that can be done remotely on a permanent basis might be off-shored altogether.

So far, the impact of globalisation on the UK workforce — whether in the form of immigration or out-shoring — has been heavier on blue collar manual workers than on white collar knowledge workers. While the idea that technology might shift that balance is not a new one, the long-term effect of Covid could be to accelerate that shift.

Whether this provokes a political backlash on the scale of the populist surge remains to be seen, but whatever disruption was heading our way is coming faster now.

Join the discussion

  • Well if this outflow is occurring there is also a positive spin the author could have highlighted and that is the reduced pressure on the housing market especially the rental sector. Based on the government figure of an average 2.68 members to each household the departure of 800,000 people is equivalent to the building of 300,000 new homes. Surely this is good news for those suffering from homelessness.

  • Maybe the migration data are unavailable but two statistics make me think that the quoted ONS figures may even be a significant underestimate.
    Firstly I was surprised that the unemployment rate declared yesterday is still as low as 5.1%; but as this is calculated by reference to those seeking work then the removal of a swathe of potential/former employees is a credible explanation.
    Secondly I was even more surprised to learn that average wages have grown by 5%, a figure far too high to be caused by wage increases. However a moments thought on reading this article produced a revelatory realisation – remove 800,000 of the lowest paid and the average will rise for simple mathematical reasons! [At the start of December 4 people lived in my house, self (65), wife (53), 2 adult offspring (24 &25), average age 42. At the start of January my 24 year old son moved into his own property so now 3 people occupy the house and the average age is 47]

  • The bourgeoisie are sitting on massive asset gains on the back of what is tantamount to Neo-Feudalism. We twist, turn, and perform mental gymnastics to tell ourselves ‘we worked hard’ or we ‘earned it’. Truth be known, I feel that there will be no return to what has passed as ‘normal’ since Blairbour.
    I can only guess what the fallout will be, but most of ‘us’ will be okay, and will find ways to rationalise the real suffering arriving for the ‘losers’.

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