Flood of migrant workers turns out to be a trickle

Media
hype predicted the UK
would be overwhelmed with low-grade labour. But the reality is a lack of
interest from jobseekers from new EU member states has left us with a major
skills gap to fill. John Charlton reports

Special investigation

How
can employers tell if a plumber from Poland
or nurse from Lithuania  has
the skills required for a particular job?

The
question of qualification and skills recognition  came to the fore once more with
the May 2004 accession of 10 countries, mostly from Eastern
Europe, to the European Union. Many of them have
relatively high unemployment rates and low wages, prompting a belief that many
workers would come to the UK
to seek better-paid work, and bring much-needed skills with them.

But
verifying these skills and qualifications is proving to be a skill in itself,
and requires a degree in EU-ology.

The
EU and its predecessors, conscious of the 1956 Treaty of Rome’s creation of a
free labour market, have addressed the issue of mutual qualification and skills
recognition in various sectors. And there are 15 EU directives covering
regulated professions, principally in medicine and academia.

However,
a proposal to replace them with a single directive was approved by the European
Parliament earlier this year and is now being shaped by the Brussels
bureaucracy.

Internal
market commissioner Frits Bolkenstein
has claimed that the adoption of a single directive "will ensure that
jobseekers and employers get the swifter and simpler system they need for
people to get their qualifications from one EU member state recognised in the
others".

Mutual
recognition for doctors from EU countries is enshrined in directive EC 93/16,
that of nurses in 77/453, and that of midwives in 80/155. But on accession,
most of the new EU member states’ medical qualifications had not gained
automatic recognition status.

This
meant medical staff from these countries would have to undergo a potentially
complex recognition and vetting process before they could register to work in
the UK.
And that prompted Sir Graeme Catto,
president of the General Medical Council (GMC), to comment: "There is
still uncertainty as to which of the new states have met the EU’s minimum training
requirements and which have not. We require urgent clarification of the
position."

The
GMC appears to have got some. Martin Holt, the GMC’s head of applications, said
some medical qualifications from the accession countries in Eastern
Europe were now recognised automatically, depending on
various criteria being met – the main problem being the dates when
qualifications were awarded, and when applicants’ courses began.

"The
date [that] qualifications are recognised [from] varies from country to
country," said Holt. "And it’s not always a single date. For example,
when specialist qualifications from Hungary
are being considered, the date of recognition can vary from speciality to
speciality."

Registration
can also be granted on the basis of acquired rights – a process of recognising
qualifications that do not meet the criteria set for automatic EU recognition.

"There
is not a single process for this as the rules for Hungary,
for example, are different to those for someone who qualified from a country
that no longer exists, such as Yugoslavia,
in the case of applicants from Slovenia,"
said Holt.  

He
said that about 200 people – mostly doctors – from accession states had
acquired full registration with the GMC, along with around 24 consultants.
"We assess whether doctors have the basic medical qualifications. Assess-ment for the ability to do a job
is up to the employers," he said.

The
EU does not allow the GMC (and other regulating bodies) to test applicants for
English proficiency, but the European Parliament is considering legislation to
allow regulators to test for language capabilities.

The
Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) faced similar qualification recognition
issues, some of which have been resolved.

Applicants
from new EU member states who want to register with the NMC – which they must
if they wish to work in nursing and midwifery in the UK
– are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

A
spokesman for the NMC said: "We ask for proof of qualifications, proof of
registration in applicants’ home countries and a signed statement of good
health and character."

And
qualifications gained on nursing and midwifery courses that started in or after
May 2004 will get the automatic recognition stipulated in relevant EU
directives.

But
if health service employers hoped that many nursing vacancies would be filled
by qualified staff from Eastern Europe,
they must be sorely disappointed.

The
NMC spokesman said that only 17 nurses from Eastern European new accession
countries registered with the council in the three months from May to July,
with around 382 applications lodged in that period – a small proportion of
the  60,000-80,000 applications from
overseas nurses and midwives received by the NMC every year.

Such
figures indicate that suitable Eastern European workers won’t fill many of the
7,508 nursing vacancies in England
quoted by the Department of Health in August, or the 45,300 hard-to-fill
vacancies (HTFVs) noted in
the health and social work sector by the Sector Skills Development Agency in
June.

Other
sectors with high levels of HTFVs
are: hotels and restaurants (34,300); law and accountancy (33,700); and
construction (20,800).

Home
Office figures also indicate a low level of new member state jobseekers coming
to the UK.
Just over 8,000 had arrived and registered with the Worker Registration Scheme
by June 2004, along with 14,400 who were already in the UK
before 1 May. The Home Office has said that the number of incoming jobseekers
is dwindling.

Home
secretary David Blunkett
said those who have registered are "a diverse group" and include
nurses (all 17 of them), accountants and teachers, plus waiters, agricultural
workers and hotel porters – largely a mix of regulated staff, professionals and
low-skilled workers.

There
are no directives on recognition of qualifications for the unskilled or
low-skilled workers, who are "subject to the rules of the labour market
and the behaviour of that market" according to the EU. But employers who
want to check on the comparability of vocational qualifications within the EU
and the wider world can go to the UK National Reference Point for Vocational
Qualifications (UK NRP) which is managed by UK Naric, a company contracted to do so by the
Department for Education and Science.

The
European Forum on Transparency of Vocational Qualifications, set up in 1999,
recommended that each EU state have an NRP. UK Naric (www.-uknrp.org.uk)
assesses overseas qualifications, compares them with UK
ones and issues letters of comparability.

Individual
assessments cost £35.25. Organisations can join UK Naric’s membership service – £710 for academic
bodies and £950 for commercial enterprises – which gives access to an online
database containing details of thousands of qualifications and how they compare
in UK
terms.

A
spokeswoman said UK Naric
receives between 50 to 100
calls per day.

"There
has been a noticeable rise in calls from citizens of EU accession states,
especially Poland
and the Czech
Republic,"
she added.

Quotes

Headline news – what the papers said


Four million immigrants could enter UK
Daily Mail (2 February 2004)


Big rise in new EU workers seeking jobs here – Irish Times (5 August 2004)


Migrants sleep rough as dream turns sour – Evening
Standard  (
23 August 2004)


Homeless migrant numbers ‘double’ – BBC Online (5 August 2004)


Government urged to pay for return of homeless migrants – Guardian  (24 August 2004)

Case study

Poland – economic reality bites

Michat, 32, arrived in London
from Poland
in May. He was armed with £3,000 he had scraped together from the sale of his
studio flat in his home country, an economics degree he’d gained after five
years at university, and several years’ experience at a Polish financial
institution working on specialist board and company reports.

The
company collapsed, and Michat
battled for more than a year to find a job. He lost faith in Poland,
where more than 20 per cent of the population is unemployed, so against his
parents’ wishes he headed for London
and straight for a catering industry recruitment agency called Mayday Exec off Oxford
Street.

Feeling
he lacked fluent English language skills, he was happy to settle for a job as a
general assistant earning £160 a week – roughly equivalent to his salary as an
economist in Poland.

Michat said he hadn’t really
bargained on London’s
living costs. His weekly outgoings – without any frills – are at least £120 a
week, so his short-term ambition has become to train as a waiter or barman, to
boost his wages.

He
expects to earn enough money to return to Poland
in about five years’ time, when he hopes his country will have "sorted itself out".

"So
much is going wrong there and so most people are pessimistic about the
future," he said. "But I am hopeful, because I feel I must be."

Michat’s life, however, may take
another turn and mirror that of his Polish friend in London.
He arrived with two degrees – one in law, another in economics. He couldn’t
land a job in either profession for his first five years in London,
so he too worked in catering while studying in English for an international law
degree. But he has just been hired by news agency Reuters.

Mayday’s
operations director Paul Spears said up to 10 migrant workers approached the
agency every day. Of a database of more than 1,000 temporary employees, about
40 per cent come from European accession states. Branch manager Andy Davies
said that common among their degrees were agriculture and political science. He
added that about three in 10 could not speak English, and were considered
unemployable until they could.

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