May 4th 2006
From The Economist print edition
A wider Europe, afloat on the Backs
WIELDING a pole to pilot a punt is a skill that is rare outside the gorgeous waterways of Oxford and Cambridge, and unknown in the ex-communist world. But nearly half of the 60-odd employees at Scudamore's, Cambridge's biggest punting-rentals firm, are from eastern Europe, chiefly Poles. The newly-arrived start off cleaning the boats; veterans of a summer or two, who have learnt to punt and chat to tourists in English, graduate to being “punt chauffeurs” on £14 an hour.
The firm's owner, James Macnaghten, says that east Europeans are a huge improvement on the local workforce: harder working and more dependable. “It's the difference between the person who clocks off five minutes or so early, and the one who stays on ten minutes later to help you pack up,” he says.
Estimating the overall effect of this influx of enthusiastic low-cost labour is hard, although a recent study by Ernst & Young, an accountancy firm, suggested that without it Britain's GDP would be 0.2% lower. In fact, nobody knows how many workers from what were once called captive nations are actually in Britain. The government's official (but voluntary) worker-registration scheme records 345,000 since Britain opened its labour market to such workers in 2004.
But, notes Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah of the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think-tank, this disguises “huge churn”. Workers may register and then leave the country. Others may not register at all. It costs £70, and the advantages it offers, such as the right to claim the dole in future, may seem flimsy. It is the prospect of work, not state benefits, that attracts east Europeans to Britain.
Four other west European countries—Spain, Portugal, Finland and Greece—opened their labour markets on May 1st to workers from the new Europe, while France promises partial liberalisation and Holland is thinking about it. But that will do little to dent Britain's lead. A widely-spoken language and thriving networks incorporating previous immigrants still make Britain a prime destination, with Ireland close behind.
Does continuing the hit-or-miss registration scheme make sense? The government considered scrapping it altogether on May 1st, but decided not to. One reason is that some existing formalities could come in handy if, as seems likely, the EU expands on January 1st 2007 to include Romania and Bulgaria. It has not yet been decided whether workers from these two countries, which will be the poorest in the EU, should be given free access to Britain's job market. Mr Sriskandarajah's institute reckons that, if allowed, 41,000 workers are likely to come from Romania, and 15,000 from Bulgaria. The government could scrap the registration scheme for Poles and the like, while keeping it for the newcomers.
The registration scheme may produce misleading figures, and it is a curious use of official time and energy at a moment when bureaucrats are too busy to deport foreign rapists. But it is a sop to public opinion, which is twitchy about Britain's increasingly open borders.