I try not to let politics creep into my blog too much. Although I do take a great interest in the subject I hold no allegiance and tread carefully when discussing such subjects for fear of offending readers. However, there is a subject which I do feel strongly about which seems to have come to the fore this week; immigration.
Before I go any further, I shall break a little and outline some thoughts about the election, mainly for the purpose of convincing readers that I don't hold deep rooted political agendas. It is my view that throughout our history the likes of The Suffragettes, Winston Churchill, The Union Movement, Thatcherism and New Labour have all contributed to our relatively stable political status. The wealth generating greed of capitalism is necessarily offset by the economically debilitating compassionate altruism of socialism. This particular election is getting very interesting, although I do worry that the majority of the general public haven't got any idea how the government, which ever one it happens to be, is really going to tackle the budget deficit. Then again, I'm not sure that government, which ever form it takes, has any idea either.
We live in a country that permits free speech, at least in most cases. If people believe that foreign immigrants are taking British jobs then they have a right to express that concern. I worry that this concern is indeed driven by a growing bigoted attitude and that the issues surrounding immigrant workers is much more complex than people realise. It affects the labour market, this is true, but I think it is important to understand some of the more subtle ways this happens.
The hospitality industry in general, which of course includes pubs, have a relatively large proportion of the workforce who are not British nationals. Many ethnic restaurants and takeaways have for years been run and staffed by people born outside this country. Many hotels depend upon overseas workers for kitchen porters, cleaning staff and often front of house as well. In a time of economic depression, when there are large numbers of British nationals out of work, it's not surprising some members of our society resent these foreign workers taking our jobs. I want to try and explain that really it is just another price we have to pay for being one of the most developed countries in the world.
For many years the governments of both parties have been trying to improve our lot. It's the way they stay in power, or get into power. When we feel that the incumbent administration is no longer making our lot better we tend to vote them out. One of the issues that wins or loses votes is education. If the government, or prospective government, are likely to improve our, or our off-springs' education, we like them. It's quite simple really. One of the things we like a lot is an increase of the proportion of the population who get to progress to university.
Of course this is wonderful. However, there is a down side to this. A greater proportion of degree educated population and a corresponding increase in overall education raises overall expectations. An example of this was one day, in the pub, during a time when I was having difficulty recruiting British staff a customer commented that his recently graduated daughter was finding it hard to find a job, all she was being offered were menial jobs like kitchen porters or cleaners. Why go to college if that is all she was being offered?
The pub we used to run is in a remote part of the Lake District. It is far away from centres of population and so our staff tended to live in, great for getting to work. However, without transport, there is little to occupy young people when they are not working. 20 years ago much of the staff for such hospitality businesses were outdoor enthusiasts, perhaps students on holiday or taking a year out. Today many of the adventurous younger students are taking working holidays abroad, after all, what young person would spend time in The stuffy old Lake District when they could work in The Alps, for instance?
Consistently we found that the British candidates for jobs in our place were people who had come to us because they could not find work elsewhere. Perhaps they were drug addicts, at least three members of staff in our time turned out to be. Some were running away from problems in their home town or with family or simply wanted to try and raid the till and then vanish. Yes, all of these things happened, and more. Put simply, due to our location, many of the British workers available to us had poor work ethics combined with social problems that were completely incompatible with our business.
In contrast we have employed many Europeans. We have also employed workers from further afield through various legitimate agencies as part of work experience training programs. There are two main disadvantages of this. One is that they tend to be short term workers. The other of course is language. Many are coming to the UK to improve their English. Some have reasonable English and can hit the ground, perhaps not running, but at a reasonable jog. Many however have not got the grasp of English that is satisfactory for working in a busy pub kitchen.
We once had a pleasant French lad called Alex. Actually, over the time we were there, we had a total of two French guys called Alex, both of whom contributed very well to the business and for that matter my sense of humour. This particular Alex had not concentrated quite as well as he should have done in his English lessons, however, he made up for it with determination and he worked very hard to learn the hard way. Shortly after he started with us I taught him to make chips. We had several trays of blanched chips in the walk-in fridge and one out on the counter as we entered a busy service.
As the orders came into the kitchen the normal operation was for me to get on with cooking, head down, and ask politely for various ingredients to be brought from the walk-in fridge. Prepped veg, perhaps a tub of sauce, perhaps a tub of mash or a lettuce. As it gets busier the requests might become less polite and have a sense of urgency. The vocabulary becomes colourful and the word "please" seems to get forgotten. "Oh, bugger" or some other words of a similar meaning get uttered as I realise that the order that is due to go out, 8 covers, all need chips and my tray of blanched chips is nearly empty. ".... another tray of chips Alex" I urge. "Sorry?"
Now I like Alex, he's trying very hard and does everything in a very timely manner when he actually understands what you want, so I remain calm and repeat my command a little bit more slowly "A. Tray. Of. Chips. From. The. Big. Fridge. Please. Alex......." there is then a short pause whilst Alex tries to convert the sounds he hears into something he can execute as a series of physical moves, but still stands there looking bemused and irritatingly cute, in the way that only a small child ought to be able to. "Sorry?"
"Oh for fuck's sake Alex, chips. You know, we rumbled the potatoes, you eyed them and chipped them through that machine outside, brought them in here and I blanched them off in the fryer and put them in trays. You then put them in the fridge and now I want
a tray here. Go and get me some fucking chips" - Alex's cuteness starting to wear off by now as I had already plated up the meals and all they needed was a few sodding chips, which would take but a minute in the hot fryer if only I had some right here and right now. Alex responded with yet another pitiful "Sorry?"
At this point Ann came to the rescue. Alex was led to the fridge and shown what a tray of blanched chips looked like. "Oh my god!" was all that the poor lad could say, along with "Sorry!" bless him, he never forgot what chips were and more importantly this story betrays the enthusiastic and determined way that this French worker helped our business, as all the other various foreign, non-skilled workers did.
I have employed people from Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, France, and more latterly Rumania and Bulgaria. Recently employing people from Poland has become more difficult because their economy has picked up, thank-you-very-much. The enlarged EU regulations stops me from employing Rumanians directly, but I can hire them as self employed temporary workers. Perversely, it is not possible to apply for a work permit as they are part of the EU and as I'm not recruiting skilled workers no points based system helps.
All we wanted to do was employ these workers legitimately so that we could pay their taxes and make it above board. The only way we could employ them was to hire them on a temporary contract and let them sort out their own tax affairs with HMRC.
The only other alternative we might have had was to offer wages at a higher rate and so attract British workers who were sufficiently competent to do the work we required. There are two very significant problems with this approach. Firstly, the business could not afford it. We would have needed to put up our prices too much. Secondly, and more importantly, despite getting employment agencies involved to help solve the problem, people just didn't want to relocate to our part of the world, almost at any reasonable salary.
I believe that foreign workers are essential for seasonal and remote businesses and the current bigoted view towards them by the general public is detrimental to the economy.
I would propose that the reason many businesses recruit foreign workers is because they are much more likely to be happy to clean pub toilets, peel potatoes or make beds. Much happier to do a whole range of menial tasks that UK citizens believe are below them. Raising our expectations are all very well and good, but lets not complain that foreign workers are taking our jobs, they aren't, they are doing the jobs we won't do.
And if any politician mentions a points based immigration system or a cap to immigration again they will fail to get my vote. Bugger, that doesn't leave many.