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Would more foreign workers solve Britain’s current labour shortages?

The UK government is offering more visas for jobs like HGV drivers... but not very many more.

The economic and social impacts of immigration are myriad, complex, and often argued about. But jobs have always been front and centre of the debate about what levels of immigraton Britain should have. People who would like immigrant numbers capped or reduced often argue that mass immigration leaves British people - especially working-class ones - facing unfair competition when looking for work, and that this phenomenon also pushes down British wages. People who take a pro-immigration stance frequently say that immigrants are essential to fill jobs that are crucial to the British economy but which many British people turn their nose up at, such as fruit picking or care work.

Brexit, and the repeated election of Conservative governments standing on immigration-reducing platforms, means that for the last few years the first camp has largely got their way. Net migration (the number of non-nationals moving to Britain minus the number of non-national leaving the country), which for years had been rising, started falling after the results of the referendum were announced in 2016. In 2019, about 60,000 fewer people choose to make Britain their new home than did in 2015. Once the pandemic hit, numbers fell even more dramatically: an estimated one million people upped sticks and left the UK in 2020.

This big decline in immigration has given economists a bunch of data to apply to the question of what impact immigrants have on the UK labour market. And plenty don’t think it’s a coincidence that Britain is currently facing huge shortages of workers in a range of professions including nurses, carers and HGV drivers. To be clear, almost nobody thinks the UK's immigration policy is the only reason for this. But the fact that Brexit Britain has much worse labour shortages than its European neighbours has led many to conclude it was a significant factor.

Making Britain back into an attractive option for many migrants - especially migrants from EU countries - may be a tall order. Exiting the EU means the UK no longer offers the same perks, such as a visa-free right to work for any EU citizen. And Britain’s association with anti-immigration sentiments will be hard to shake. Moreover, more migration may be as tough a sell at home as abroad, because Covid converted many more Brits into fans of closed borders: 84 percent of adults now think no immigration at all should be allowed while the pandemic continues.

All this may explain why, despite a lorry-driver shortage so severe that Brits are being warned it could ruin Christmas, the government has only just offered up 5,000 temporary visas to foreign HGV drivers. The number of lorry driver jobs that need to be filled is estimated to be 100,000.

The government may figure that by holding fire it will force businesses to entice Brits into the roles instead. Considering the usual way to make a job more appealing is to offer more money, that could translate into a raft of well-paid low-skilled jobs that would be of particular benefit to the poorer and less-educated sectors of society. Indeed, this is already happening. Lorry-driver wages have shot up by as much as 40 percent. Firms are offering HGV workers signing-on bonuses of thousands of pounds. That’s good news for the drivers. It may be worse news for consumers, as extra staffing costs tend to mean the prices in the shops have to go up too.

Read our explainer on: immigration

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