New data shows the biggest outflow of foreign born workers on record
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.