Latvian migrants start to usurp Poles
By James Boxell
The Financial Times, February 26, 2010
The 'Latvian labourer' could soon usurp the Polish plumber as the most recognisable symbol of east European migration, according to Home Office figures published yesterday.
While work permit applications from Poland continued to decline last year during the depths of the British recession, numbers of arrivals from Latvia and Lithuania increased sharply.
Poland's economy has been left relatively unscathed by the global financial crisis and its government has made a determined effort to entice young Poles back home. At the same time, the Latvian and Lithuanian economies are struggling.
Latvians and Lithuanians now account for 35 per cent of work-permit approvals, while Poles make up 45 per cent. The number of Latvian permits more than doubled last year. Those for Lithuanians rose by 30 per cent.
Tim Finch, head of immigration at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-of-centre think-tank, said the shift showed there was still strong demand by businesses for cheap foreign workers to take on the kind of jobs shunned by British nationals. Agricultural towns have experienced some of the biggest influxes of people willing to work in farming or food processing.
'It is very unclear how the [migrant employment] networks operate, but we know these jobs still exist and somebody needs to fill them,' Mr Finch said.
The accession of the so-called A8 countries to the European Union in 2004 formed the biggest wave of immigration in Britain's history. Arrivals have fallen substantially since the peak years of 2006 and 2007.
With immigration an important issue for many voters in the run-up to the general election, ministers have used the decline to claim that eastern Europeans stay for a short time and return home – an argument dismissed as simplistic by towns at the centre of the migrant worker boom.
Figures by the Office of National Statistics, also published yesterday, showed that, while immigration from the A8 countries fell by 30 per cent in the year to June, there are still more people arriving than leaving. Some 68,000 long-term A8 migrants came to the UK in the year, while 58,000 emigrated.
Also, more up-to-date Home Office statistics show that the number of A8 work permit applications appears to have stopped falling after sharp declines in each quarter of 2008. Approvals for the three months to December 2009 were only slightly lower than for the same period in the previous year.
Anti-immigration groups insisted yesterday the UK remained on course for a 70m population within 20 years, even though the ONS showed overall net migration fell to 147,000 in the year to June – down from 168,000 in the previous 12 months.
'Today's figures confirm that immigration remains a major problem for our society,' said Frank Field MP of the cross-party Balanced Migration group.
The ONS said there was little change in the pattern of long-term migration to Britain – with 518,000 people coming to the UK to live, work or study in the year to June and 370,000 leaving to live abroad.
Phil Woolas, borders minister, argued the government's new points-based system, which restricts visas for non-EU workers to professions with skills shortages, meant 'only people needed by Britain can come'. Non-EU work visas fell 26 per cent to 55,300 in 2009. This did not include family and dependants.