Britons Take Whatever Work They Can

Britons take whatever work they can

By Jim Pickard, Political Correspondent
Financial Times
Published: March 11 2009 02:00 | Last updated: March 11 2009 02:00

The recession is forcing British workers back into tough low-paid jobs that have been the preserve of migrant labour since the expansion of the European Union's borders in 2004.

Casual work in meat-packing factories or Lincolnshire potato fields has for years been dominated by foreigners, mostly from eastern Europe.

In a sign of how hard the recession is biting, hundreds of British nationals have been applying for some of the most punishing jobs in the UK.

Paul Whitehouse, chair of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which supervises employers of casual workers in agriculture and food processing, said his staff had noticed the change in the run-up to Christmas.

“We're starting to see many British people in some of the places we go to, which we haven't seen before, a lot of people are having to take whatever work they can,” he said. “These are basic minimum wage jobs, packhouses, sorting out potatoes on lines, that kind of thing.”

Mr Whitehouse told the Financial Times this was the first time the agency had seen this trend since it was set up in April 2006.

Lord Mandelson, business secretary, told a committee of MPs on Monday that eastern European workers had been filling “gaps in our labour market our British nationals are either not available to fill or are unwilling to fill”.

That could be set to change, however, with unemployment expected to hit 3m by the end of the year after reaching 1.97m last month – its highest level in 12 years.

As the labour market contracts, companies seeking recruits are being inundated with offers from potential candidates. Twycross Zoo in Warwickshire had 3,000 applicants for just 150 posts, including cleaning and retail assistants, when it held a recruitment day earlier this month.

Linda Wuttke from The Workshop, an agency in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, said she had seen “more and more” British workers applying for factory jobs in recent weeks. “It's just happened recently,” she said. “It's what I'd call older, middle-aged people who have been in work for 10, 15, 20 years in one place and now with the climate as it is, they are made redundant and willing to take on anything. It is heart-breaking.”

Another recruiter from the same area said he had seen British applicants for some “desperate” jobs. “I had two qualified builders the other day. These men would try anything. It was grating carrots, that's really hard work – unless you're used to it it's very hard to do.”

David Camp, director of the Association of Labour Providers, the trade body for the industry, said migrants still accounted for most of the workforce: “The thing about agency work is that you get work today [but] you're not guaranteed anything tomorrow.”

There is still a widespread view in the industry that workers from central and eastern Europe have a stronger work ethic.

The head of one Lincolnshire agency said: “Brits would rather take the dole. People don't want to come back to work . . . We find a lot of English people tend to go sick, they take more time off. Foreign workers will turn up every day,” said one agency.

But Mr Camp of the ALP reported increasing anecdotal evidence of Britons being more willing to pick crops or work at food factories.

A year ago agencies had worried about where they would find workers, he said: “The evidence this year is that there is going to be no shortage of workers.”

Gangmasters feel the pinch

Temporary workers could face delayed wages payments as a result of supermarkets and other companies squeezing their suppliers, according to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, writes Jim Pickard .

The GLA warnedharsher credit terms, such as longer payment periods, were being passed down the supply chain, leaving labour providers with less money to pay staff. This could even lead to some breaking the law to survive, and to the exploitation of workers.

Paul Whitehouse, chairman of the GLA, which supervises 1,200 legal “gangmasters”, said there were already signs of legitimate employers being undercut by less scrupulous ones during the downturn.

“We talk to people who say, 'we can't possibly hire staff for that price, so they must have cut corners',” he said. The GLA was set up after the death of 23 illegal Chinese migrants, who were employed to gather cockles in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire, in 2004.

However, its remit is still limited to agriculture and food processing. Mr Whitehouse called on the government to extend this to include areas such as catering and building.