MT comment: Is it a coincidence that the same issues but in a different context are taking place in Finland and elsewhere in Europe? Even if elections are supposed to be a time when we celebrate our democratic rights, for some, like migrants and minorities, it has come to represent a day of uncertainty, even fear.
Just two weeks into the New Year and it is already clear that the public conversation about immigration policy is picking up exactly where it left off before the holidays.
There seems to be an agreement that the Bulgarian and Romanian people who, we were assured by the tabloids, would be sweeping into the UK like a veritable tsunami have been a bit of a disappointment to date. Those who arrived on the famous flights into Luton airport were the ones who had been living and working in the UK for some years and who had merely nipped back home for a week or so over the Christmas break. Never mind – there are still over 340 days left in the year for them to come into the country in their tens of thousands, so may be the scaremongers will get the raw numbers they claim.
Misleading on benefits
Disappointed might not be the right word, since it implies that you once hoped for better, but the fact that the politicians have returned so quickly to worry the bone of migrants being drawn by generous benefits is something we could be doing without. Migration Watch UK seems to have at least conceded the evidence that out of work benefits –Job Seekers Allowance, etc – are not the principal draw, but they have switched to an argument about the pulling power of in-work benefits, like tax credit, housing benefit, council tax benefit, and the like. It appears they think EU migrants will be drawn in unfeasibly large numbers because of the expectation that these will be available on tap.
It is true that the average family in the UK takes home a bigger share in benefits which essentially top up low earnings than those in any comparable country in the EU. Workers in top of the league Denmark have a gross monthly wage of €4800, lower-down Germany €3400 and mid-range Austria and France around €2800. Us Brits, in contrast, facing similar costs of living, have to bump along on the equivalent of €2200.*
That is why in-work benefits are so much higher in the UK. But in terms of a straightforward labour market deal, isn’t it obvious that the bigger draw will be towards countries that offer higher wages rather than towards those who expect their workers to go through all the rigmarole of form filling and income assessment before they obtain a living income?
MRN takes the view that we simply don’t know who many Bulgarians or Romanians will be coming to the UK this year – or Spaniards or Italians for that matter. What we are confident of is that they will be net contributors to the UK economy, and this fact should be more centrally acknowledged in the public policy discussion.
For this reason it is particularly disappointing that the Labour oppositions seems to be so incoherent at a time where clarity and principles are so obviously needed. Business spokesperson Chuka Umunna gave a floundering performance on this point during the BBC television Question Time last week when he appeared to be suggesting that consideration ought to be given to preventing EU citizens coming to the UK to work unless they had a definite job offer in the skill range they operated in.
This is an idea that needs to be scotched immediately. It amounts to nothing less than a call for a visa system to be reintroduced which would require EU citizens to submit evidence of an appropriate job offer before arriving here. Even worse, compulsory visa systems for workers skew the whole immigration system towards a need for visas for other reasons, such as to study or to joining family settled here. Unless Labour is seriously considering a radical, full reversal of the entire system of free movement then its senior spokespeople should be told to steer well clear of such inept speculation.
End migrant scapegoating
We expect that one of the things that will emerge over the next six months is the fact that our benefits system is not a significant draw factor for EU migrants and it is high time to make the evidence on this the central part of the policy discussion. Unless politicians are clear on the point it will serve to poison the tone of policy discussion not just about immigration, but the whole programme of welfare reform itself. Our system of supporting hard pressed wage earners has become overly dependent on state subsidies of the tax credit and housing benefit variety no doubt, but the solution is not to pull the rug out from under the feet of those people who need this extra income to afford a basic standard of life, but to mend the labour market and the way it comes up with the sums that it is prepared to allocate to remuneration.
Migrants are not to blame for the fact that average wages have stagnated since 2008, and for so many this has meant being worse off than they had previously been. The election campaign that will be kicking off in the next few weeks, firstly for the European Parliament and local government in May of this year, and the then the general election in May 2015, will see many politicians seeking to capitalise on the insecurity and anxiety that ordinary people now feel about their lives.
They must be answered with the bold and clear proclamation that migrants are not to blame for the predicament we are now in. Further, if we are ever to find a way of our this hole, it will because we have risen to the task of building solidarity between citizens and migrants across Europe, and have moved public policy onto a bold and radical agenda which aims to secure social justice for all.
Read original story here.
This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.
*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.