UK businesses view European migrants as more motivated, flexible and willing to work longer hours than the domestic labour force, according to a report from Government advisers.
Employers do not think of themselves as hiring staff from the European Economic Area (EEA) because they are prepared to accept lower terms and conditions, but because they are higher quality or prepared to do work that British workers are not, the analysis found.
Experts said many firms in lower-skilled sectors have built a business model in which the ready availability of migrant labour from the continent played an important and “sometimes vital” role.
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) took evidence from more than 400 businesses, industry bodies and Government departments as part of a major inquiry ordered by Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
Officials are attempting to draw up post-Brexit immigration rules that incorporate an end to free movement while avoiding any major damage to the economy.
Employers in all sectors are concerned about the prospects of future restrictions on EEA migrationProfessor Alan Manning, Migration Advisory Committee
Publishing an interim update on Tuesday, MAC chairman Professor Alan Manning said employers in all sectors are “concerned about the prospects of future restrictions on EEA migration”.
The review set out a summary of the views expressed by employers.
Many suggested that EEA migrants are “more motivated and flexible than UK-born workers” – including a greater willingness to work longer and unsociable hours, to welcome overtime and show a “consistently strong work ethic”.
In addition, European migrants are often seen as better qualified for the jobs they do.
The MAC said it was difficult to objectively assess these claims.
It referred to analysis suggesting that, on average, EEA migrant workers report lower absenteeism rates than UK-born employees.
The committee also found business is too reluctant to discuss the role of wages as a possible explainer for why some EEA migrants are employed.
Those from newer EU member states seem to be lower paid than the UK-born population, though that does not imply migration has suppressed the wages of the domestic workforce, the body said.
Some employers do not feel they could improve the supply of UK-born workers by offering higher wages, according to the assessment.
However, the MAC said it “does not think this is credible”, saying: “Individual employers would almost always be able to recruit resident workers if they paid wages sufficiently above the going rate.”
The report cited figures showing workers from nations that became part of the EU before 2004 earn 12% more than UK-born employees, while migrants from newer member states earn 27% less.
Countries that joined the EU in 2004 or later include Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria.
The UK is one of fifteen countries that were members prior to the expansion, along with France, Germany and Italy.
Researchers acknowledged that while lower migration would very likely lead to lower growth, it would not necessarily mean lower growth in output per head, which is more closely connected to living standards.
The study concluded that the vast majority of employers do not deliberately seek to fill vacancies with migrant workers.
“They employ EEA migrants when they are the best or, sometimes, the only available candidate,” it said.
Neil Carberry, managing director for people at business group the CBI, said: “This report rightly highlights employers’ concerns regarding future access to skills and labour from our largest and closest trading partner.”
Lord Green of Deddington, chairman of Migration Watch UK, said: “This is a balanced report. The committee correctly notes the vital point that immigration does not necessarily increase growth in GDP per head.
“No less important, they say that what is best for employers is not always best for the welfare of the resident population overall which, rightly, is the yardstick that the committee uses.”
The EEA comprises EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. Switzerland is also covered by the analysis.
Official figures show there were around 2.35 million EU nationals working in the UK between October and December.
Analysis published last year showed EU migrants account for as many as one in 10 employees in some sectors.
Data from 2016 showed more than two million workers from the bloc were employed in industries including manufacturing, hospitality, healthcare and financial services.
The Home Office said the Government is committed to “controlled and sustainable migration” and will put in place an immigration system “based on evidence”, including from the MAC.
The committee’s final report will be published in September.