Why Europe? Why not.

LGiU Scotland’s Kim Fellows explores the impact of Brexit on the low skilled labour market in Scotland as discussed at an event at Edinburgh University’s Centre for Constitutional Change

Why Europe? is a chapter in a book I am currently reading called Sapiens. It might not sound like it, but it was ideal reading before attending a meeting hosted by Edinburgh University on Brexit, and this week’s issue was the so-called low skilled labour market in Scotland.

Understanding the point in time when Europe came to dominate because of social, economic and political forces helped me to understand better why some of the pressures we are facing now led Britain to vote for Brexit, and also to understand the questions we face when workforce planning over the coming months and years. This discussion concentrated on what Brexit might mean for the low skilled labour market. However, many participants pointed out that sectors including social care, hospitality and retail are far from low skilled and are more like low value – as these roles are often under-appreciated and under-valued. That is, until no one is there to do things like pick our fruit, serve our meals or care for our loved ones.

Right now, who knows what Brexit will look like? What we do know, thanks to research from the University of Edinburgh and reports from Scottish Government, is that in Scotland we need migrants to deliver the public and private sector services we depend up on to eat, live, work and play. Many sectors represented round the table made the point that the uncertainty facing migrants is already having an effect as people are beginning to chose other countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Germany to travel to and work.

The countries mentioned have a variety of schemes that positively support migrants in work, for example in New Zealand and Germany there are short term migration schemes that address seasonal labour demands e.g. in the agriculture sector. Canada has different schemes, including an interesting scheme that, after a labour force gap was identified, enables people requiring live-in care to hire a foreign worker, and that worker can apply for residency after two years. Sweden and Spain have “hard to fill” vacancy schemes that work with employers to fill and recruit across a skill spectrum with migrants gaining access to permits and residency rights in stages over 2-4 years.

When research was undertaken amongst migrants it was clear from their responses that both before, but increasingly after, the Brexit vote people were becoming more concerned about their status in the UK. Migrants don’t necessarily come to work away from their home country with the intention to stay; they do however choose to not to leave. Most migrants in Scotland come to big cities and move to more rural areas after a while with families, and any uncertainty might make people stay in bigger conurbations, choose to leave, or not come at all.

So while we don’t know what is happening, we do know Scotland needs migrants and the time is now. We need a workforce that can care for a rapidly increasing number of older adults as we face the challenges of a relatively static home grown working age population, and that the existing workforce is comprised of an ageing working population (e.g. social work and social care). In policy terms, Scotland needs a broad range of policy approaches to attract and keep migrants coming, staying and working in Scotland especially in what some might consider less attractive but nonetheless vital jobs, for example social care and agricultural sectors.

In answer to the question Why Europe? – from what I heard I would say Why Not? Scotland needs a civil society and cross-political party policy approach that values the essential contribution that migrants from Europe and beyond bring to us all.

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