Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A sledgehammer to miss the nut

We have heard much from business about the need to maintain a steady flow of cheap and exploitable labour. We have heard this before from the mill owners in the 70's. The influx from Pakistan was a means of replacing British workers instead of automating. But then things changed, UK textiles were no longer competitive and not long after the mills were gone. West Yorkshire is littered with disused mills. One might pause to wonder if we would still have a textile industry had the sector been forced to modernise earlier.

As to EU workers, we find that agriculture is front and centre. We are, however, moving into the age of farm "drones" and high tech agribusiness. Ending freedom of movement could well be the turning point. But what of those jobs for young British high flyers?

Well, see the thing is, European business does not look overseas unless they need to. If you are bringing in people for a job you still need to help with relocation and there are costs and delays associated with it. Business, however, is willing to pay for the right people - and where there are skills shortages, businesses are already looking beyond the confines of the EU and they are already on top of deciphering visa rules. For sure, ending freedom of movement may make things a little more bureaucratic but this is not exactly a show stopper.

For sure, it is a pity to lose the automatic right for anyone to up sticks on a whim, but people do it nonetheless and it doesn't seem to stop half of my friends buggering off to Indonesia or Brazil. Where there's a will there's a way.

More to the point, where UK business is concerned, if they want cheap labour then they are not recruiting from the EU if they can get away with it. European fishing boats are well known for flouting visa rules to employ Filipinos.

The point, I suppose, is that people and business will continue to adapt. As to rights of those already here, the system is already quite generous. People may not be bargaining chips but visas are.

The travesty of all this though is that nobody serious seems to think that ending freedom of movement will substantively reduce immigration. Worse still, if we want to compensate for the loss of trade by way of leaving the single market, it follows that we will need to relax visa requirements elsewhere.

Some suggests that this is where a CANZUK arrangement could be beneficial. The problem there is that we have to ask if they are offering anything worth having. Trade volumes are likely to stay about the same. If we are looking at it from a wealth perspective then we must do so on the basis of skills, in which case, India is high up on the list.

Amid growing anxiety over the Trump administration’s possible revamp of the H-1B program, other countries around the world are putting the minds of Indian engineers at ease. Taking note of its role as the de facto near-shore centre for US operations, Mexico is more than willing to ramp up its intake of Indian talent. In an interview with Indian Express this month, Mexico’s ambassador to India, Melba Pria, called the city of Guadalajara "a technology hub with the presence of at least 10 major Indian IT companies like TCS and Infosys".

Put simply, if there is talent at a loose end then Britain needs to be in there. One should note that one of the stalling factors of the EU-India deal was the UK's resistance to visa relaxation with India due to immigration concerns. We are now faced with a dilemma. If the UK doesn't open up to India, the EU most certainly will. If we want to be a tech hub and still relevant to Europe then the choice is obvious.

In that regard if Kippers are worried about foreigners moving in and taking their jobs, it is more likely that an Indian is going to take a white collar job than casual labour from the continent. They haven't thought this through.

The truth of the matter is that ending freedom of movement was never going to be a silver bullet for immigration. At best it sees a reconfiguration of people flows, in which there will be a more noticeable shift in patterns with yet more new influxes of people from unfamiliar regions. What does it solve?

Personally I couldn't care less. Immigration is not a burning issue for me. The bits that need fixing are not fixed by tinkering with border controls and ending freedom of movement. When it comes to abuse of human rights rules I could go the full Alf Garnett but that's a different issue.

What is central to this though is not the economic fallout of ending freedom of movement. Industry will adapt. It's that we are doing this for entirely spurious reasons for non-existent benefits. Freedom of movement is not open borders. Farage and the Kippers are not going to be appeased by ending it so it's useless to try. In attempting to appease the unappeasable we are excluding ourselves from the single market at great cost thereby damaging the livelihoods of Brits while ultimately failing to tackle immigration. Why?

As to why I have not joined the ranks of those cross party operations seeking to safeguard the rights of EU citizens already here in the UK, my view is that anyone who has been here for years could have applied for a passport at any time. I don't have that much sympathy. The last six months, though, should have been used to to make a principled defence of freedom of movement.

Many Brexiteers would be keen to point out that sovereignty and "taking back control" mattered more to them than controlling immigration. Those who seek self sabotage are in the minority and there is no reason why their disingenuous campaigning should be taken into account. Nobody has yet presented an honest case as to why ending freedom of movement fixes anything - nor have I seen a convincing case that leaving the single market in such a cack-handed way is worth it. That is the tragedy of this whole enterprise. Somehow respecting the result also seems to mean giving a free pass to a government intent on shooting us in the foot.

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