Recently the UK released its proposals for a new, points-based, post-Brexit immigration system. The restrictions are harsh: workers can now only come to the UK if they meet English speaking requirements, have a secure job offer in a ‘highly skilled’ area, have a salary of at least £25,600, have a relevant PhD, or are applying for a sector where there is a need for workers. The outcry was also fairly immediate, as employers across multiple sectors suggested this could bring operation in the UK to a staggering halt in many industries.
There was one thing that particularly concerned me, however. In fact, it’s something I’ve had on my ‘to-write’ list since last November. It’s the idea of ‘low skilled’ work, and how we think about and treat people in these areas.
It is long overdue for us to stop demonising this work, and to stop looking down on poverty and those within it.
It’s time for us to acknowledge that ‘low skilled’ work does not exist.
What low paid, ‘low skilled’ work actually looks like
To talk about work in the UK, and the skills we associate with it, we first have to acknowledge that the nature of work is changing.
In the past, ‘low skilled’ jobs were often secure, desirable and paid enough to live on. They usually fell into two categories: goods (most often in factories or mining) and bureaucracies (services). Over the years many of these jobs have been discontinued, outsourced to other countries, or replaced by automation and technology.
Most modern and future ‘low skilled’ jobs are set to be in sectors that can’t be easily automated. Some examples include industries such as hospitality, driving, or providing care to growing numbers of the population. This is a concept known as the “service class”. It’s not going anywhere, and it’s ridiculous to demonise it.
After the 2008 recession zero-hours contracts also rose dramatically. This is useful for giving the impression that UK employment levels are amazing, but fails to acknowledge that this new form of work is not equal to what came before. You may be employed, but you may also only work 1 hour in a week, or not earn enough to live on. There is often less stability of income and a lack of fulfilment from these jobs. When old ‘low skilled’ jobs left the UK, the jobs that replaced them didn’t bring the same sense of identity or pride. These jobs also often entail zero-hours contracts, gig work, or temporary short term contracts.
Three decades ago, Rugeley’s largest employers were the Lea Hall colliery, two power stations and Armitage Shanks. As Jeff Winter, a local Labour councillor, put it to me: “If you went back 40 years … you had a pit which employed a lot of skilled men. There were mechanics; there were electricians. There were labouring jobs at the pit, but they were still good jobs.” Today, Rugeley’s biggest employer is Amazon…
Almost 30 years after the last round of pit closures, 12% of working-age residents in Blaenau Gwent are receiving government support for disability or incapacity – twice the national average. There are five food banks within its 109 sq km (42 sq miles), and life expectancy is among the lowest in England and Wales. One in six adults is being prescribed antidepressants. There is a lesson here as to what a “post-work” society might look like, if we get things as wrong as we did in the 1980s.
There’s a deeper problem: our attitudes towards low-paid work and the people who do it. What I saw is the product of a consumption-driven society with unrealistic expectations: of a consumer class bossing another class around. If we believe everyone has the right to live a decent life, with dignified work, something more fundamental needs to change.
When it comes to the new immigration policies, let’s not kid ourselves. Let’s acknowledge from the beginning that they were designed by people who seem to openly despise those with less privilege or social standing than themselves. Priti Patel co-authored a book claiming British workers are amongst ‘the worst idlers in the world. Dominic Cummings called supermarket workers as ‘mediocre people’.
Even if these claims were actually true (they are not) there is still an argument that these principles aren’t actually doing what’s best for the country. In fact, it would be better to favour ‘low skilled’ workers in immigration policy.
The ‘best and brightest’ workers that Britain seeks to attract from abroad were not created in a vacuum. There are many intelligent people in Britain who could work in high skilled, prestigious jobs if they had the privilege and access to education and training, and if employers hired without implicit biases. To only allow immigration of those who will take top-tier jobs in essence only leaves lower-paying, ‘lower-skilled’ work for people in the UK. If you really believe in the idea of immigrants ‘taking jobs’ from the British people, surely this is not the logical way to stop that from happening?
The reverse approach only makes sense if you think wealth creation is driven by a tiny number of highly-skilled individuals at the top who are just fundamentally better humans than the rest of us, with unique and irreplaceable talents.
The implication is that clever individuals will be welcomed in to do jobs that most people are simply not capable of, but there will be plenty of boring, painful and low-paid work for everybody else.
Regardless, the idea that migrants ‘take jobs’ from the British people is false. Britain runs on ‘low skilled’ jobs that immigrants are willing to do, often in sectors that struggle to attract local workers at all.
There are studies to show that immigration doesn’t hurt economies or workforces. A 2018 study from the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee found that EU workers typically don’t take local jobs away from residents or depress local wages, and don’t lead to employers training less British workers. They also pay more in taxes than they receive in welfare benefits and are large contributors, both financially and as workers, to public health services such as health and social care.
Plus, research shows that immigration consistently boosts economies and reduces unemployment, far outweighing governmental costs of newcomers.
Research by the International Monetary Fund, which found that a 1 percent increase in the foreign-born population raises GDP per capita by 2 percent, suggests that immigrants to the U.K. have made British people nearly 30 percent richer.
These workers can be found in a range of skills and sectors. For example: more than 20% of nurses and more than 30% of doctors, pharmacists, and dentists in the U.K. are foreign-born, but 13% of HGV drivers are also currently recruited from the EU, as are 70% of workers in the meat-processing industry. Foreign workers across the board are vital to the UK and, regardless of what arbitrary skill level we assign to their job, they keep our economy afloat, giving more than they take.
Those who came here to drive buses and run newsagents did not exist in some alternate universe where these occupations required no skills, helped no one and made no imprint. They were not hermetically sealed away from Britain’s culture.
The new immigration rules will not only hurt the country economically – they give a glimpse into a new world that is taking shape, one where non-elite jobs are stripped of all honour, virtue and value. Where the government’s disdain for the working class becomes apparent in its contempt for the kind of postcolonial labour that built and rebuilt this country
‘Low skilled’ work is crucial
Marshall said businesses had already invested heavily in “homegrown talent” across the UK, “but critical labour shortages mean firms will still need access to overseas workers at all skill levels”.
Some sectors that are particularly vulnerable to new immigration laws include transport and warehousing, food processing, tourism and agriculture. Considering working in warehouses such as Amazon is so punishing that people are consistently hospitalised, I think it is genuinely insulting to imply this work is lesser than ‘high skilled’ jobs.
Farming is also a particularly complex area (and difficult work), as many workers come on a temporary basis for harvesting. While the government has announced a scheme that would admit 10,000 seasonal agricultural workers a year, farmers say they need closer to 70,000 per year. Last autumn tonnes of crops were left to rot because of a lack of agricultural workers. Demonising this work as ‘lesser than’, and not allowing those in who are willing to do it, will only make things worse.
Sally Gilson, head of skills at the FTA, said: “I don’t understand why they are setting an arbitrary level for skills and salary when it should surely be based on what the country needs. These are jobs that Britain relies on to keep goods and trade moving.
“Logistics hubs are in areas of low unemployment, so it’s not a case of being able to train up local people to take those roles.”
One of the most vital sectors of ‘low skilled’ work is undoubtedly care work, a sector where 80% of workers are female, and the majority of the jobs involve direct care, including things such as washing and dressing. Half a million elderly and disabled people in Britain rely on home care visits. The number of British seniors in need of care is growing, and care work is the occupation with the most projected employment growth in coming years. These workers are already in short supply, with few suitable local applicants.
If you’ve ever cared for someone before (even if it’s just changing a baby’s nappy), you will know that to call these kinds of jobs ‘low skilled’ is ridiculous. They may be low on glamour, but they are not easy to do. Unfortunately, the care sector has a high rate of turnover (the highest of all sectors in the UK). Average pay for a care assistant is £350 a week, £200 a week lower than the UK all-jobs average, and nearly a quarter of the workforce are on zero-hours contracts.
The care industry is already struggling with recruitment, and the new immigration laws have been described as “disaster for the care sector” by the public sector and health union Unison.
Assistant general secretary, Christina McAnea, said: “Companies and councils can’t recruit enough staff from the UK so have to rely on care workers from elsewhere. But even with these migrant employees, there’s still way too few care workers to meet demand.”
Perhaps then, we should stop demonising a job that is incredibly demanding and important for those receiving care. Perhaps, instead of saying that ‘low skilled’ jobs are for lazy mediocre people, we recognise that the skills of human compassion and emotional labour are invaluable, especially as demands for these workers continues to grow. Perhaps we should show appreciation for these workers, pay them well, and look at how we can care for their needs properly to increase retention.
In response to the pushback on new immigration rules, the government has recommended increasing levels of pay and investing in automation to reduce reliance on foreign workers. It’s honestly difficult to make sense of these arguments. In areas such as the care sector budgets are determined by government funding, which is not likely to increase. This makes wage increases unfeasible, either to meet the immigration threshold or to entice local applicants. When it comes to automation, this only works in scenarios such as manufacturing. You can’t automate caring for people.
The threat of exploitation
The demonisation of low paid work, and subsequent immigration laws, also opens up the threat of increased exploitation, abuse and slavery.
There will still be low paid jobs, across many sectors, that will require workers. If that supply is suddenly cut off, there are fears that some businesses will hire undocumented workers who are trafficked into the country.
“Even now, as eastern Europeans have full access to labour market, Poles and Romanians are two of five top nationalities who are reported victims of modern slavery in the UK. It is easy to imagine how increasing pressure to drive down labour costs [as the supply of low-skilled workers weakens] will translate into much more severe coercion and abuse.”
So, perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with they way we’re thinking about low paid work.
Poor is not a personality flaw
There is a pervasive idea that being poor is down to personal failings, not policy or wage law. This tends to lend itself to strict immigration, and justification for dismantling welfare systems. For nearly ten years the government has used ‘skivers and strivers‘ rhetoric to justify what is, ultimately, cruelty.
In one instance, a group of tenants from Leeds were spat at and called “benefit street scum” when they got on a bus near their homes, according to Ms Pickard. Shocked and disturbed, they asked the housing association for advice about how they could provide a more positive image of people on benefits.
This policy, and the subsequent social fallout, is justified by the need for austerity, propped up by demonising the poor for not lifting themselves out of their situations. This is staggeringly misleading.
“It’s clever politics for the Government to point to benefit fraudsters as the root of all evil – it distracts us from some inconvenient truths. Like the contrast between the £1.2bn lost to that fraud, and the £25bn lost to wealthy tax dodgers. Over four million benefit claimants are in work; their income is topped up by the state because low rates of pay or short or zero hours of work mean, for many, that ends can’t be made to meet. Many carers and genuinely ill and disabled people claim benefits in addition – ought we not to judge ourselves by the way we treat the ones who need our help the most? Nearly all of our clients are in work of some sort. But very many are benefit claimants. I’m all for stopping the benefit cheats, but by itself that will do nothing to tackle the problem of rising inequality.”
The real facts are starkly different. A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that most people who were unemployed or in low paid work were resilient and committed to finding work, despite the setbacks of their circumstances. Most hated claiming benefits, with some avoiding making claims for as long as they possibly could, and the report found minimal evidence to suggest that the safety net of benefits stopped people looking for work.
People were keen to stress that they budgeted properly, managed well on what they had and that they coped. Most interviewees did not describe themselves as poor, preferring to stress the normality… A sense of pride at getting by and coping in adversity was clung to in opposition to the stigma and shame that still attach to the words ‘poverty’ and ‘the poor’.
Some of the study’s participants were low qualified but had positive attitudes towards further training and skills. Overall, however, levels of education or ‘skill’ didn’t lead to better jobs. Those with degrees and diplomas still ended up in low pay careers, stuck in the cycle of poverty.
The report found that ‘employment is the best route out of poverty’ isn’t that simple. The sorts of work available kept people in poverty rather than lifting them from it. People moved in and out of low paid jobs, but never out of poverty.
In the area studied, better-quality jobs had gradually been replaced with low-skilled, low-paid and insecure employment. The same interviewees who described the positive benefits of work in general could also describe the unpleasantness, injustices and hardships of particular low-quality jobs they had done…
On the other side, our interviewees faced a variety of ‘personal troubles’ that caused them to lose and leave jobs. Caring for children and other family members was a key factor, as were health problems (their own and those they cared for). It is important to recognise, however, that these two sides of employability interlink. Sometimes the health problems that prompted leaving a job were caused in part by that job – or at least by long-term, insecure, poor work. Mental health problems were not uncommon in our sample and often linked to, if not fully accounted for by, harsh or unrewarding experiences of employment – and by being unemployed, recurrently. In other words, an experience of long-term economic marginality and social disadvantage had negative health consequences which further entrenched marginality and disadvantage.
JRF’s reporting consistently found that people were keen, willing and able to work, but lacked opportunities for well-paid work. They were not lazy, the changing nature of the labour market failed them. To then demonise the working poor, or the jobs they do, is nothing more than twisting the knife.
JRF’s report gave two recommendations:
- Improve the quality and pay of poor work, including raising the minimum wage and improving retention and advancement in employment.
- Give greater attention to the needs to the recurrently, short-term unemployed workers – ‘the missing workless’ – who sometimes do not register for unemployment benefits and often lack the help that might enable them to access better-quality and sustained employment.
Both of these recommendations involve changing policy and social attitudes to work. They emphasise making these ‘low skilled’ jobs more desirable, and returning to a place where people could live from their work. Tightening immigration was not a recommendation that came from this report, seeing as it makes no economic sense to do so.
In reality, there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ migrants, no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ poor people. There is no ‘low skill’ or ‘high skill’ work.
There is only cruelty.
There is only pinning the blame on the poor for their own poverty, to distract from the egregious wealth inequality caused through 30 years of tax breaks for the rich, wage stagnation that doesn’t match inflation, and corporate tax avoidance. There is only demonising those seeking opportunity by leaving their countries, even though they boost our economies and have done for generations. There is only pretending that ‘low skilled’ jobs serve no use, when without them our country would literally come to a halt.
As long as members of our government keep eating food, ordering coffee, receiving care, or ordering goods, they rely on ‘low skilled’ workers. To turn their noses down at this work and imply that these workers are lesser than is deluded at best, and downright nasty at worst. These arguments are not supported by economics, by the changing labour market, or by the needs of everyday people.
It’s high time we recognise them for what they are: contempt for the working class. Nothing more, nothing less.