by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 24
February 2021
Spotted
07:00

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.

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Carl Goulding
Carl Goulding
1 year ago

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.

Rosy Martin
Rosy Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  Carl Goulding

You can add to that pressure on the NHS and schools..there are some serious upsides to this.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
1 year ago
Reply to  Rosy Martin

The linguistic pressure, as well as the other kinds.

Ian Standingford
Ian Standingford
1 year ago
Reply to  Carl Goulding

Well put

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
1 year ago
Reply to  Carl Goulding

No, no, no – remember, immigration could never possibly have had any negative side-effects at all. At all.

Anne Waters
Anne Waters
1 year ago
Reply to  Carl Goulding

And more starter jobs for the indigenous…..

David Fitzsimons
David Fitzsimons
1 year ago

the pandemic has stopped the collection of migration data at ports and airports

Why is this info not collected automatically, and why, when the volume of travellers was 1/10th could it not be more efficiently collected over the last year?

Peter KE
Peter KE
1 year ago

public sector sitting at home on full salary.

David Stanley
David Stanley
1 year ago

In Victorian times wealthy industrialists often built whole towns and housing estates so that their workers had somewhere to live. In our more enlightened times, large companies like Starbucks couldn’t care less about these problems. They happily exploit immigrant workers but give nothing back to society. As a result, we have a massive housing crisis.
Hopefully Brexit and the pandemic encourage people to rethink their priorities. Do you really need some penniless immigrant to make coffee for you? How about you just make it for yourself and take a thermos to work? That way you help the environment by producing fewer disposable coffee cups and stop the need for ever increasing numbers of people to arrive in this country to act as your servants.
Also, without want to sound like Chairman Mao, it wouldn’t hurt some of the useless knowledge workers to take up some genuinely productive labour like care work, plumbing or fruit picking. I’d quite happily see some former events managers, made redundant by the pandemic, in the fields harvesting the food that will feed the nation.

Hugh R
Hugh R
1 year ago
Reply to  David Stanley

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’.

Last edited 1 year ago by Hugh R
D Ward
D Ward
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh R

and it only really benefits people with no kids – if you have children, you know they can’t afford to get on the housing ladder, and if all your wealth is in your house, how do you pass it down? So ultimately it’s self-defeating and, in the long run, we are all dead, so what’s the point of coverting/accumulating way more than you need?

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
1 year ago
Reply to  David Stanley

What is a “useless knowledge worker”? How do you think companies survive employing people to do “useless work”?

Richard Southgate
Richard Southgate
1 year ago
Reply to  Joe Blow

Well said

Sean MacSweeney
Sean MacSweeney
1 year ago
Reply to  Joe Blow

I agree, that’s what middle management is for

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
1 year ago

I can confirm, anecdotally, innovating times ahead.
I, for one, will not be sorry to see the reduction ( I would really like to say “end”, but that would be fanciful, even deluded) of the exploitation of the international labour supply, for which the employers do not necessarily pay the full, or even part of, the total cost to the wider society around them.
I fully appreciate that, in a year or so, I might have to revise that opinion, or just eat my hat ( hopefully only metaphorically).

Tim Diggle
Tim Diggle
1 year ago

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]

Neil John
Neil John
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim Diggle

A lot of self congratulatory pay rises also influence that statistic. Higher management roles in many Companies and Universities have gotten 5-10% this year, the staff most at risk, and often ‘cheap’ migrant labour, the cleaners got 100% of sweat f-all, many don’t even get enough hours to make a ‘living wage’ so have to work for many employers, usually facilitated by out-sourcing ‘Facilities Management’ companies.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago

“Then again, any jobs that can be done remotely on a permanent basis might be off-shored altogether.”
This is more true for the lower-tier of middle class jobs and professions I’d say.
I mean, in IT that which could be outsourced has been already, which is partly why it is now longer the easy meal ticket for half-trained cowboys that it was 20 years ago. The IT jobs in tech that exist now are largely the ones in companies/industries where a higher skill level is required than is available in outsourcing firms.

Tim Bartlett
Tim Bartlett
1 year ago

I can confirm, anecdotally, interesting times ahead. Locally, my industry (Food) and agriculture have both depended on cheap EU labour. Most went home last Feb/March and only a minority have returned thus far. The season has already begun for flower picking and they’re having labour supply issues. As soon as food service resumes I think we’ll have the same. We’re already seeing big price increases on imported ingredients and most packaging materials, inflationary pressures are going to be huge.

Maybe this is where a decades money printing and can kicking in all sorts of areas comes home to roost. To be followed no doubt by a vote to rejoin the EU as its all blamed on Brexit.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim Bartlett

Doesn’t this say something about Covid 19 and the national lockdowns?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim Bartlett

Actually we’ve had about 50 years of money printing and can kicking. Hopefully some of the media studies and social sciences graduates etc will get out in the fresh air and do some flower- and fruit picking, although I very much doubt it.

Tim Bartlett
Tim Bartlett
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

They’d have to be forced, as would the employers to have them. Graduates on production lines don’t last long.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

“…media studies and social sciences graduates etc …do some flower- and fruit picking.”
It is not as unlikely as you might think. There will probably be a significant reduction in burger-flipping jobs, so…

Frederick B
Frederick B
1 year ago

“The implementation of tougher immigration policies in the wake of Brexit”. I suggest you have a look at the Migration Watch website if you think that the immigration policy which Boris has constructed is “tough”. Their view, and that of many other commentators is that, post Covid, immigration is likely to increase, but the sources will change – fewer Europeans, more Asians and Africans.

Mark Bishop
Mark Bishop
1 year ago

An excellent time to post a reminder that what voters, as opposed to economists and politicians, care about is GDP per capita, and not GDP.