Recession will send 1 million immigrant workers home, race chief says
Up to a million immigrant workers will abandon Britain as the economy slows and jobs become scarce, the Government's equalities watchdog predicted.
By James Kirkup, Political Correspondent
Last Updated: 2:09PM GMT 29 Oct 2008
Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission said the number of foreign workers losing their jobs and going home meant Britain was effectively “exporting unemployment.”
Without the departure of migrant workers, UK unemployment would be closer to 3 million than 2 million, he said.
He was supported by Tesco, one of the country's biggest employers, which warned that the departure of eastern European workers this year has masked the true scale of the downturn now gripping the UK.
An exodus of 1 million workers from Britain would be one of the largest waves of emigration in British history, perhaps rivalling the outflows of the First World War when 300,000 people a year were leaving the country.
More than 800,000 eastern Europeans have come to Britain to work since the European Union expanded in 2004. But as the UK economy slows, the tide is starting to turn and some estimates say as many as 500,000 have already left again.
The pound's recent slide has also erased much of the economic advantage for eastern European workers in Britain.
The Home Office has estimated that at least 100,000 Polish workers have left over the past year, and the Polish government's economic advisers are forecasting that another 400,000 could follow in the next 12 months.
EU nationals in the UK are eligible to claim benefits including Job Seekers' Allowance. Government figures show there have been only 4,647 successful JSA applications from eastern Europeans since 2004.
UK unemployment is currently 1.72 million, but economists are forecasting it will pass 2 million as soon as Christmas and keep rising.
Mr Phillips said that the situation would be worse without migrant Labour.
“If it were not for immigrant workers who are returning home as jobs dry up, we would now be talking about the prospect of 3 million unemployed instead of 2 million,” he said.
Speaking at a CBI conference, Mr Phillips added: “Modern immigration has given us a huge buffer against unemployment – in effect, this year we will export much of our unemployment to the rest of the EU.”
Mr Phillips was backed by Lucy Neville-Rolfe, an executive director at Tesco, which includes many migrants among its 260,000 UK employees.
She said: “We've benefited hugely from immigrant workers. They have a very low absence rate. As unemployment rises, they go home. That has kept the dole queues shorter. That may have disguised the scale of the slowdown earlier this year.”
Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat economics spokesman, said: “One of the advantages of our set-up is that migrant labour, especially from eastern Europe, is a shock-absorber. They came when there were vacancies, and now that there is a downturn, a lot of them are going back and will go back.”
Ben Read, managing economist at the Centre for Economics and Business Research, said Mr Phillips was “right in principle” about migrants leaving but questioned whether the number leaving would be as large as 1 million.