Why Britain (and Europe) depends on migrants

It’s not about economics. It’s about our snobbish, slobbish culture

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

This is perhaps not the best moment in history to extol migrants from the developing world or Eastern Europe, but the fact remains that without them my life, and I suspect the life of many other people in the West, would be much poorer and more constricted than it is.

A migrant is not just a migrant, of course. Indeed, to speak of migrants in general is to deny them agency or even characteristics of their own, to assume that they are just units and that their fate depends only on how the receiving country receives them and not at all on their own motives, efforts or attributes, including their cultural presuppositions. It takes two to integrate, after all.

But I want to point to what seems to me a curious paradox. My elderly mother-in-law, who lives in Paris, requires a great deal of daily care because of illness, and in fact has three attendants who look after her on a kind of shift system. They come respectively from Cape Verde, Mauritius and Haiti. We are extremely fortunate to have them: they are very kindly and good-hearted and they do far more than they are strictly paid to do. We have good reason to be grateful to them. They have a difficult job and they do it marvellously well, with patience and good humour that is exemplary.

If we did not have these people to look after my mother-in-law, our lives would be greatly disrupted and indeed dominated by having to look after her ourselves, which would be more or less a full-time occupation and would prevent us from doing almost anything else. Speaking personally, I am not cut out to be a full-time carer, nor do I have any ambitions in that direction.

If it were not for these immigrants from Cape Verde, Mauritius and Haiti, or from other similar countries, we should not be able to find any substitutes, even though the unemployment rate in France is about 10 per cent and much higher among fit young people — 20 per cent, say — and the work itself requires only a certain amount of training. The underlying attitude is at least as important as the training, and the fact is that the young French, as the young British, do not have the right attitude.

Now, you might say that if we cannot find anyone to look after her individually we could put her in an old people’s home (which would almost certainly shorten her life); this, however, would only shift the problem slightly, for the fact is that such homes are overwhelmingly staffed by immigrants from Cape Verde, Mauritius, Haiti, etc.

In other words it appears that, despite mass unemployment, we have to import labour in order that this kind of work be done. And the problem, or perhaps I should say peculiarity, does not exist only in France but in many other countries. In Ireland, for example, an old lady of my acquaintance needed 24-hour attendance and this was provided by a Filipina, even at a time when there was 15 per cent unemployment in Ireland.

Economic determinists will no doubt attribute the paradox to our system of social security and unemployment benefits. The economic difference between doing this type of work and not working at all is simply not great enough to entice any native to do it. But I do not think that this can be the explanation, or at any rate the whole explanation. The fact again is that the women are paid above the minimum wage and, being legal migrants, are entitled to the same benefits as those who allegedly will not do the work for lack of incentive to do it. I am not sure, either, that I would much like to be looked after by someone who did the work only because there was no alternative for her.

The difference, then, is a psychological, cultural or even religious one. The change in the title of the senior nurse in a hospital ward from sister to ward manager is indicative of a change in sensibility, from a residually religious notion of serving others to a purely technocratic one. In the popular imagination, the distinction between service to others and servitude to others has been more or less eliminated.

Nor does this affect only work such as looking after my mother-in-law. Some years ago, the Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting wrote the following:

So when a girl at 17 decides to go ahead and have a baby, there is no tragedy of lost opportunity other than the local checkout till waiting for her low-paid labour.

This sentence breathes snobbery and disdain for those who actually do such work; it assumes, moreover, that once a supermarket checkout cashier, always a supermarket checkout cashier, a fate worse than death. That there might actually be people for whom such work is suitable and potentially not odious does not occur to the writer. What makes the work odious is not the work itself, but those who communicate their disdain of it. Snobbery thus makes the import of labour necessary.

In Britain, we have an additional problem, greater than that of any of our neighbours. With the exception of family hotels, for example, all good hotels in Britain employ exclusively foreign labour. If you want to go to a really bad large hotel in Britain, find one in which the staff are British. It is then guaranteed to be ill-kept, with slovenly service, quite possibly not very clean, with atrocious food, grubby staff, inattention to detail and so forth. Even a foreign telephonist is likely to be better, and to speak better English, than an English telephonist. If you want a good or even only a decent hotel, you must find one in which all the staff are foreign. And this is so whatever the unemployment rate, high or low: it has nothing to do with the unemployment rate.

I have conducted a small thought experiment with many people. I ask them to imagine that they are employers who seek an employee to perform work that is not in itself skilled but nevertheless requires certain characteristics, such as punctuality, politeness, willingness to oblige and so forth. The imagined employer has two applicants about whom he knows only two things: their age (shall we say 24) and their nationality. One is British and one is Polish. Which of the applicants does the imagined employer choose? Not a single person to whom I have put this question has ever hesitated for a moment: he chooses the Pole.

Our need for migrants, then, has a cultural, not an economic root. This does not mean, however, that we need all the migrants we are likely to get from wherever we get them.

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