I was talking to a work colleague the other day about immigration in the noughties and whether that has had an effect on the way people think with regards to Brexit and a populist opinion.
His theory is that because there was an influx of labour from newly appointed EU countries such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, this had in turn, driven the populist support for the likes of Nigel Farage. The same kind of support found at the right end of the Conservative Party spectrum that Theresa May is fighting a constant battle with.
I was in the thick of the London market when these countries (ten in total) were given access to the EU and there was indeed a steady flow of eastern European workers coming to the UK (although not millions of thieving gypsies, as some newspapers tried to claim).
The UK labour market was going through a unique period at this time because across the water in Ireland, the ‘Celtic Boom’ was going at full tilt, courtesy of low corporation tax and easy borrowing. This meant for the first time in generations there was reverse in the tide, with Irish construction workers heading home to enjoy the rush of unprecedented money.
The company I was working for was part of a network of Irish construction companies in North London, often dubbed ‘The Murphia’ due to the loyalty shown to Irish workers who were related to the bosses. As you know, the Irish used to have large families, so there were often brothers, uncles, cousins and even sisters all working in one firm.
When these folk started heading back, labour markets had a problem. London was booming with new Russian money leading to some people dubbing it ‘Londongrad’ and unregulated lending by City banks like RBS. There were cranes everywhere, but with a lot of the Irish heading home, construction companies were becoming reliant on a diminishing English workforce and foreign workers on short term visas.
In 2004 all that changed and construction companies, much to their relief, discovered a flow of eager Eastern Europeans who saw Britain and London in particular, as gold rush. It was a place where they could work hard for three or four years and buy a palatial property back home for their efforts. I guess it was similar to when Brits headed to the German reunification programme in the early ‘90’s.
Virtually all the guys I got to know were Lithuanian, with occasional Poles, Latvian and Estonians. I was amazed at how smart and tough they were, with an appetite for hard manual labour that had British construction companies salivating at the prospect of a high turnover of work completed by fit young lads who had no interest in having days off.
You see, the problem with the British and particularly the Irish workers related to company bosses is that they took liberties as well as plenty of time off as fully paid up members of ‘The Monday Club’. There was a joke around at the time where Seamus was asked why he only worked 4 days a week. The answer was that 3 days didn’t pay enough.
I missed the Irish when they were gone, as they were naturally very funny, good company and fatalistic in nature. However, there was no doubting that those EU workers who filled the labour gap were hungry for money and damaged the reputation of UK and Irish workers courtesy of their enthusiasm.
There is a story that gets banded around that these EU workers got paid less, undercutting UK based workers, but in my experience this wasn’t true. With EU workers’ rights, you would have been in trouble if you paid low wages and in any case, these guys didn’t suffer fools and knew their worth. They came to London to earn big, not get ripped off and any crooks who were exploiting them with ‘cash in hand’ projects were getting rounded up and banged up.
So anyway, my colleague’s conclusion was that because of this influx, our public services were not adequately prepared for the cost of this increase in the population and this has been the catalyst for the populist argument driven on by the likes of Nigel Farage. On the surface of it, you can see how it seems plausible.
However, this argument falls apart somewhat when you scratch beneath the surface and understand that several independent surveys show that EU workers are worth around £2.5k a year more to the economy than British workers operating at the same level.
It took me a while to understand this because it must be difficult to measure productivity accurately and come up with such a figure. Then I realised that it was because most of these people came here, worked, paid tax on their earnings and went home. Because they were young, fit and healthy, they never used hospitals, schools, social services or welfare, at least not often anyway.
Using public services wasn’t on the agenda of an EU worker from the Baltic States. If anyone who tries to tell you it was, their pants are on fire.
So, if EU workers paid that much tax, where did the money from their endeavour go? If it didn’t go into the public services pot to improve the infrastructure required for a population surge, where was it?
To find out the answers to this very emotive question, you could start by seeking out former RBS Chief, Fred Goodwin. If you find him, ask how he has been getting by on a 550k per annum pension for the last 10 years. Remember, he receives this pension as a reward for a multi-billion pound banking collapse that had to be rescued by me, you, and any other person you know who pays tax.
Bailing out banking crooks wrecked public spending, not EU workers exploiting a gap in the labour market to make better lives for themselves.
They owe Britain nothing in taxes, whilst the media barons demonising them, owe billions. Billions that they have safely stored in the Cayman Islands, protected from the new 2019 EU regulations on Tax Avoidance.
That, in the likely event you are reading, Alanis Morissette, is irony.