The wider use of migrant workers – and growing employer satisfaction with them as a labour source – signals that many of the barriers previously hampering their employment have been overcome.
According to government figures, more than 345,000 Eastern Europeans have arrived seeking work since the EU expanded to include former Soviet-bloc countries in May 2004.
A Home Office study last month found that employers across all sectors agreed the number of migrant workers had increased over the past five years, and they were an important source of labour.
The report by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), said employers praised the work ethic, attitude and reliability of migrants and – in some cases – even preferred them to domestic workers.
And last week, a TUC report found that migrant workers are becoming increasingly important in certain sectors of the labour market, particularly construction, where there are widening skills gaps.
This current positive climate is in contrast to the situation two years ago. An IES report in 2004 showed that employers believed the public perception of migrant workers was so negative that speaking out about it could threaten their business.
Fear of repercussions was the main reason employers taking part in the study requested anonymity. “This concern over negative publicity is likely to be a significant barrier to other employers considering recruiting immigrants,” the report said.
It called for an environment in which employers could be confident of using migrant labour without finding themselves subjected to unwanted media attention.
That climate now exists, according to Tom Hadley, director of external relations at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation.
“Bad stories about migrant workers get media coverage, but for every one of those there are hundreds of good news stories out there,” he said.
“Most employers are quite bullish about their recruitment of migrant workers, and the benefits are well-documented.”
Sally Dench, senior research fellow at the IES, said fear of negative publicity was not highlighted in the institute’s most recent report.
“The underlying feeling is that employers are pleased with the quality of migrant labour and the positive effects they can bring,” she said. “Employers just don’t seem to be bothered about bad publicity any more.”
John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, echoed that view. To a certain extent, employer worries about negative publicity could previously be attributed to the “shock of the new”, he said.
“When you have a huge influx of people and they become more visible, economic nationalism and the public’s latent xenophobia bubble over,” he added.
“However, it’s less of a problem now if the employer treats [the workers] well and the job is done effectively.”
Caroline Hemingway is recruitment manager at white goods manufacturer Crosslee, which employs about 300 mainly Polish workers as seasonal labour. She said worries about how migrants might affect the company brand never surfaced during initial discussions. “We needed additional labour and, with problems sourcing it from the local market, we had to be innovative to fill the jobs.”
Hemingway said there was still some way to go to overcome long-standing prejudice among certain employers. “There seems to be a stigma attached to using migrants, mainly because people don’t like change. I think it’s down to a lack of understanding,” she said.
Hemingway called on more enlightened employers to be more vocal about their migrant workers. “Many companies are recognising the availability of an alternative source of labour outside the UK and should shout about their successes,” she said.
But conversely, Philpott said that while there was scope for more good news stories about migrants, some employers are too quick to criticise UK workers.
“There is almost an element of bashing home-grown workers at the moment, portraying them as lazy and unreliable,” he said. “I’m sure the majority of UK workers could do the jobs just as well as migrants.”
But often these jobs involve unfavourable pay, hours and conditions, particularly in the migrant-heavy agricultural, hospitality and catering sectors. So it is more a question of UK workers being able, but not willing.
As Dench said: “The pool of UK workers available to do these jobs is not that great. Migrant workers are much easier to deal with and will fill these less attractive jobs.”
For more on migrant workers, go to www.personneltoday.com/34434.article