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Oxford University research helps UK policy makers gain insight and develop solutions to migration issues.

Labour shortages and immigration policy

Image credit: Shutterstock

Migration is a hot topic. In the lead up to the 2015 election it was a constant refrain from political parties and commentators. The United Kingdom has a long, and often troubled, history with immigration, and the 21st century is no exception. The sound bites buzz across the political divide and into the streets: migrant workers ‘taking our jobs’, British unemployed ‘too lazy to work’, with opinions between and beyond. Dr Martin Ruhs and Professor Bridget Anderson have led a research project that reveals the complexity involved in migration policy, and presents options for policy makers to change the current system.

It’s important to step away from the rhetoric, and to fully understand the UK’s employment situation before embarking on a discussion of migrant labour. Ruhs and Anderson have done just that, pooling 20 years of experience between them and the team at COMPAS.  They analyse the UK’s labour market, and explore key concepts like ‘skills’ and ‘labour shortage’, and their findings influence current immigration policy.

For many years Britain has had a flexible labour market, with low levels of labour regulation, and in many ways we’ve benefited from this. However, any discussion about migrant workers needs to break down this concept and look more carefully at specific employment sectors as well as taking the wider political context into account. Ruhs and Anderson have focused on low-waged jobs, where the share of migrant workers among low-skills ‘process operatives’ has increased from 8% in 2002 to 25% in 2009[1].  

In a world in which the divide between academia and policy can often be very wide, martin is one of those whose work bridges the gap
- Special Advisor to Labour leader

The increasing demand for migrant labour is a product of complex interrelationships between institutions, public policies and social relations. Social care is sector where public policies create demand for migrant workers. The shortages of social-care workers and care assistants – two-thirds of care assistants in London are migrants – are largely due to low wages and poor working conditions. The work is physically and emotionally demanding and often undertaken in unsocial hours. It also has very low status. Most social care in the UK is publically funded but provided by the private sector and voluntary organisations. Constraints in local authority budgets have contributed to chronic underinvestment. Together with the structure of the care sector itself, this has resulted in a growing demand for low-waged, flexible workers. Simply cutting benefits, or reducing legal access to migrant workers without addressing the causes of British workers’ reluctance to apply for jobs in the sector, will put more pressure on an already creaking system. This cycle will repeat itself unless policy changes can engage industry and employees alike.

Ruhs and Anderson’s suggested changes include greater labour market regulation in some sectors, more investment in education and training, better wages and conditions in some low waged public sector jobs, improved job status and career tracks, and a decline in low-waged agency work. The key question that Ruhs and Anderson’s work has put to policy makers is whether the UK is really able or willing to make these kinds of changes in exchange for fewer new migrants.

This research and subsequent policy suggestions influenced Labour Party policy on immigration. In the lead up to the 2015 election, as the Opposition Party, they called for changes to how the economy is structured, with more focus on training and vocational qualifications, more effective regulation of recruitment agencies and the enforcement of labour standards.

Dr Martin Ruhs is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Continuing Education

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Dr Martin Ruhs 

Prof Bridget Anderson

Department of Continuing Education



[1] See Labour Force Survey data, as analysed in Aldin, V., James, D. and Wadsworth, J. (2010) ‘The changing shares of migrant labour in different sectors and occupations in the UK economy: an overview’, in M Ruhs and B. Anderson (eds) Who needs migrant workers? Labour shortages, immigration and public policy, Oxford: Oxford University Press