Why “low skilled” migrants can be “good” migrants too

low skilled california migration

Pantomime season began early this week, set to the beat of a calypso drum. And part of the soap-opera drama of UK immigration politics – all dodgy peerages and unpaid bills this week – surely stems from the ease with which the “truth” is bent to our own convenience. So Migration Watch has ‘improved public understanding’ of immigration; Sir Andrew Green has ‘no political axes to grind’. In this world-turned-upside down, this is Democracy in Action: not the loss of a measured, meaningful debate on migration in favour of prejudice.

Because after all, who wouldn’t hold these truths to be self-evident: that immigration must be controlled, that Eastern Europeans have overwhelmed the UK, that low-skilled migrants steal British jobs. That we’re not against immigration: just the wrong sort of immigration. We don’t want the huddled masses: give us your brain surgeons and entrepreneurs.That, at least is how it’s presented by people like Anna Firth, who wanted to stand as the Conservative candidate in the upcoming Rochester by-election. Endorsing UKIP’s plans for a point-based system, Firth’s argument that ‘if you come to this country with skills we really need – say you’re a brain surgeon or something in Australia as opposed to someone who has no skills, a fruit picker in Romania – then we say yes… but otherwise we need to say we can’t support you’ speaks to the idea of “common sense” migration.

Few would find this unreasonable. High-skilled migration good: low-skilled migration bad. It’s not just an argument made by the right: there are shades of the same thinking in the writings of the left – such as John Harris’ opinion that the ‘shrill voices’ of the migrant-supporting metropolitan elite need to acknowledge the negative consequences of low-wage migration, and have a ‘real debate’ about freedom of movement. And – despite all the easy targets for outrage this week – it’s been this quiet, under-the-radar story, this idea that what we really need to do is “fix” low-skilled work by “fixing” (i.e. removing) low-skilled migrants, which has made me most angry.

Because here’s the problem. Sometimes you don’t want to admit what’s good for you. And there’s actually plenty of evidence to suggest that when it comes to migration, there’s an inconvenient truth. We need Romanian fruit-pickers.

British farmers rely on foreign labour. As the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee detailed in 2013, this isn’t to do with wages. Very, very few locals are willing to do the work. Picking crops is hard, physical labour: we are increasingly too fat and too unfit to work in the fields. We’re also over-qualified: who’d choose to break their back picking strawberries if they can sit in an office chair instead? The work is predominantly in isolated, rural locations and – thanks to the demands of 24-hour supermarkets – shifts can run all night to keep up with demand, so on-site accommodation is part of the job. Oh, and turns out agricultural work really is seasonal (who would have guessed) – so labour market needs fluctuate, and what you need really is a temporary, mobile work force. So far from being a drain on society, Romanian fruit-pickers are a crucial part of our British food chain: even more so since the sixty-year old Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme was closed in 2013.

This is not just a “British Problem”: it’s a Western one. Every developed economy relies upon poor, low-skilled migrant workers to bring in the harvest: Mexicans in California’s Central Valley; Jamaicans in the Canadian wheat fields; Pacific Islanders from Australia. Even recession-hit Catalonia hires Colombians, not Spaniards.

And be wary too of buying into any spinning of “lazy British welfare scroungers” versus “noble peasants”. As the MAC report details It’s fairly clear that most of the migrants who work in agriculture do so either because they lack other skills, or (more often) because they lack opportunities to work legally in other parts of the economy. Once Polish and other A8 migrants were allowed access to the whole of the UK labour market in 2004, they pretty soon stopped digging potatoes and found jobs that were not necessarily better paid (the average seasonal fruit-picker will make over £300/week), but offered more sociable hours, greater opportunities for integration and less dirt.

So the real worry isn’t that there are too many Romanian fruit-pickers flooding the UK: it’s that there soon won’t be enough. The result? Most likely, ever greater reliance on technology and upon gangmasters to supply workers, with all the attendant risks of migrant exploitation and a race to the bottom.

This underlines that it’s a knee-jerk reaction to assume that all low-skilled migration is bad migration: that letting the poor move always equates to a Migration Crisis. The truth is, when it comes to agriculture we should see the global development opportunity instead. One thing the developing world has lots of? Agricultural workers. The opportunities for mutual gain – for farmers to find workers, for migrant workers to send remittances home and even to learn new skills – are tangible. Australia, New Zealand and Spain already frame their agricultural workers’ schemes in precisely these global development terms.

Such programmes need to be well-run; to work with trade unions to ensure migrants are paid decent wages for decent work. And still there is something faintly Victorian about the spectre of tied labourers shipped onto farms in the English countryside: it’s hardly the heady stuff of free movement. But given our current fear of migration, this at least is an opening to rewrite low-skilled migration as something more than a scourge.

I think that too often the middle-class distaste that’s expressed for low-skilled migrants is really just general distaste for everyone poor: a poisonous reminder of how much Britain is still hung up on class distinction after a century of “meritocracy”. John Harris is wrong: it’s not low wage migration that’s the problem: it’s low wage work.

And in fact, migration can and should be a part of fighting against that stratified economic world. The relationship between immigration and inequality is more complicated than easy lines that talk about “low-skilled” and “high-skilled” as catch-all, easily-defined categories suggest. When borders become something that only the rich can cross, armed with degrees and corporate job offers, we all lose. Migration should offer a chance for not just spatial but social mobility: the old cliché of the beginning of a better life.

The real lesson? Migration policy deserves to be debated in something more than grand terms and vague patriotic statements. We need to talk in statistics and specifics: to avoid lazy assumptions about who’s a “good” and whose a “bad” migrant. Some kinds of low-skilled migration can further social justice and our own self-interest – while some kinds of highly-skilled migration do neither.

What makes me most angry is that this kind of reasonable, measured, progressive conversation is being lost in the noise of a calypso circus. And sure, it’s an impressive conjouring political trick. But when the show is over, there will one day be a hell of a mess to clean up. And it won’t just be the migrants who have lost out in the meantime.