Employers claim that migrant workers are addressing their recruitment problems, according to new in-depth research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the second anniversary of European enlargement (1 May 2006), also International Workers Day.
The employment of migrant workers is one of the most hotly contested public policy issues in the UK. Yet little research has been done on the experiences and perceptions of migrants working in low-waged occupations - especially those working in breach of immigration rules.
Surveying over a thousand migrants and employers from the construction, hospitality and agricultural sectors (including a focus on au pairs), the study reveals that 75% of employers felt that European enlargement had been good for business, with migrant workers doing jobs under employment conditions that UK nationals are not prepared to accept.
Employers valued highly qualified migrant workers for low-skilled and low-waged work. They preferred benefiting from what they see as the "work ethic" and reliability of migrant workers to employing reluctant UK nationals who some described as "lazy". Employers recognised that recruitment and retention difficulties were often the result of long, anti-social hours, high physical demands, low pay and status. But they claimed they still found it hard to attract UK workers when pay and non-wage benefits were increased.
Researchers conducted interviews before and after EU enlargement to assess its impact by surveying and interviewing UK employers and migrant workers from four Accession (A8) countries: Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, and two non-A8 countries, Ukraine and Bulgaria.
Before EU enlargement, interviewees worked for relatively low earnings and longer basic hours than the occupational average. Many had no paid holiday, sick leave or written contracts. Many had skills significantly above those required for their job. No migrants interviewed belonged to a trade union.
The majority of respondents were legally resident in the UK although some were working in breach of their immigration status. Almost 50% of migrants illegally resident or working in violation of conditions were paying national insurance. Over half of student visa holders and au pairs surveyed were legally resident but working in non-permitted employment or for longer hours than allowed.
After EU enlargement, 71% of A8 nationals (allowed immediate access to the labour market) felt their lives had changed as a result. For 28%, working conditions had improved and 59% felt it was easier to find work. In a comparison group of non-A8 nationals (Bulgarians and Ukrainians), 64% felt it was harder to keep their job and 85% said it was harder to find work while for 30% work conditions had deteriorated.
Many employers were prepared to "bend the rules" or turn a blind eye to possible breaches of conditions attached to immigration status. This continued after EU enlargement. Some A8 workers had not registered under the Workers Registration Scheme (WRS), either because they did not know it was required or because they "did not think it worthwhile". Some employers felt that the WRS was bureaucratic, confusing and unnecessary.
Employers often preferred particular nationalities for particular jobs regardless of immigration status. Stereotyped ideas were particularly marked in some of the in-depth interviews with hospitality employers. One employer explained how he had Polish housekeeping staff, EU15 nationals serving in the restaurant and "our kitchen washing-uppers tend to be more African nationals".
Lead researcher Dr Bridget Anderson said: "Many migrant workers tolerated low-skilled work and poor conditions because the pay was significantly better than the wages in their own countries. Sometimes they put up with negative aspects of their jobs in order to learn English or because conditions were only temporary."