Saturday, 8 October 2016

Listing Foreign Worker Numbers

Last week the Conservative Party floated a policy proposal to make companies report how many foreign workers they employ and - if press reports are to be believed - "shame" companies judged to employ too many.

The media reaction this proposal generated showed that I wasn't alone in instinctively finding this idea morally repugnant - but then YouGov published a poll that suggested the majority of voters instinctively approve of the idea ("By more than two to one the public support government proposals to make businesses publish how many foreign workers they employ");

So why does a proposal that appals many of us appear to find favour with the majority?

First we should try and be clear what the proposal actually is (even if those answering the YouGov question may not have been). This is not as straight-forward as you might imagine.

The headlines seemed clear enough: "Firms must list foreign workers - plans to shame companies..."

Interestingly you won't find any of these words in Amber Rudd's conference speech (> full text of Amber Rudd's conference speech) - the only relevant words I could find are:
we will shortly be consulting on the next steps needed to control immigration [...] examining whether we should tighten the test companies have to take before recruiting from abroad [...] The test should ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do. [...] So I want us to look again at whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in British workers
Fairly run-of-the-mill stuff. I could argue with the phrase "jobs British people could do", but there's certainly no mention of  lists of foreign workers or shaming companies. So where do those words come from? I can't find any formal government announcement (> and nothing from the Conservative Press office (> press.conservatives), so it seems we have to rely on papers' interpretations of press briefings.

I make no apology for being forensic about this. When reactions to the proposal include claims of xenophobia and racism, we should be clear about who has said what and to whom.

The independent helpfully quotes directly from "a briefing sent afterwards" (emphasis is mine)
In a briefing sent afterwards, it was made clear that other measures to be considered would be, “whether employers should have to set out the steps they have taken to foster a pool of local candidates, set out the impact on the local labour force of their foreign recruitment and be clear about the proportion of their workforce which is international, as is the case in the US."
That same independent article states
Businesses may even be “named and shamed” by being forced to publish what proportion of their workforce comes from overseas. 
Those quotation marks really matter: we must surely infer that either in the written or spoken briefing from the Conservative press office, those words were used?

The Times article doesn't explicitly refer to the briefing but clearly theirs is the same source (again emphasis is mine)
Under the proposals, to be included in a consultation paper, businesses would have to “be clear about the proportion of their workforce which is international”. It is understood that this would apply to non-EU workers initially but could be extended to all non- British workers after Brexit.
Businesses would be expected to publish the figures for each site where workers were based. Details such as whether the rules would apply only to companies employing a certain number of staff have yet to be finalised.
The Times article goes on to say;
Hitting back at critics in an interview with Today [..] Ms Rudd said she had been careful to ensure her speech did not to fall into the “trap” of stoking racial tensions.
Ms Rudd has a point insofar as it's clear that the words that caused the biggest headlines and most outrage were not in her conference speech; but it's also clear that the official press briefings given were much less circumspect.

The fact that the independent places "named and shamed" in quotation marks and that the Times refers to plans to "shame companies" suggests that this language was used in the briefing.

[The "must list foreign workers" in the Times headline looks like the work of a sub-editor to me, because revealing how many are employed is technically not the same as listing them.]

Enough of the forensics: Amber Rudd may have been careful not to deliver the inflammatory words herself, but she (her department, her party) are clearly responsible for getting the "name and shame" idea out there, along with the basic proposal that companies declare the proportion of their workforce which is international.

Of course all of the nuance above is lost by the time you get to public perception and the YouGov poll question to which the majority appear to agree1: "do you support or oppose government proposals to make companies report how many foreign workers they employ "

Now let me explain why I think this is a really awful idea.

I've made the point that the "list employees" headline is misleading, but the process for getting to the proportion figures requires employers like me to create real lists with real names of real people on them. Under these proposals I will be required to create lists of non-British employees. You don't have to be the keenest student of history to see why this is a deeply unsettling thing to be asked to do.

References have variously been made to "foreign recruitment", "international workers", "foreign workers", "comes from overseas" and "non-British workers". Each of these terms is open to interpretation and raise questions which - frankly - I don't think we should be having to ask (e.g. UK Home Office won't say if Irish people will be exempt from controversial list of foreign workers).

It's important to note that it is of course already illegal to discriminate at work on the basis of nationality (or race, religion, gender, age etc.) - companies can't pay non-British workers on a different pay-scale to British workers.  We already have a visa system which controls who can and cannot work in the UK and for how long. If a government wants to change those rules, they should do so explicitly, not via some dodgy back-door shaming exercise (which by the way appears to encourage discrimination).

Under these proposals we would be asked to segregate our employees into two categories: British and non-British. We would be explicitly encouraged to discriminate between these two categories - having "too many" non-British employees is something we are to be ashamed of, apparently.

This focus is clearly meant to be on hiring decisions, as ilustrated by the supplementary YouGov question (which 60% of respondents agreed with):

There's a major flaw with this question of course: unless we start cloning people, "all else about two candidates for a job" will never be equal. What this is really suggesting is if you're struggling to choose, don't bother thinking harder and forming your judgement based on the candidates' qualifications and your perception of their ability to do the job, judge them instead based on whether they're British or not. Whether the respondents realised it or not (anybody involved in recruitment knows the premis of the question is flawed), this is simply encouraging discrimination based on nationality.

But if we're to "name and shame" companies for employing "too many" non-British people, would the impact stop at recruitment? When performing staff reviews or facing difficult redundancy decisions, how can employers not be expected to be influenced by the consideration that having "too many" non-British employees is considered a source of shame for the company?

True Story: As an employer I've had to go through the extraordinarily difficult and soul-sapping process of making people redundant. When you go through that process you have to work out the objective selection criteria on which you decide who stays and who goes (tenure, attendance, performance reviews, disciplinary record, etc.). I hope I don't need to say we didn't have "British or non-British" as criteria on our list. I remember clearly how a Polish warehouse worker with an outstanding employment record wept when she was told she wan't going to made redundant - she told me she just assumed that the non-British workers would be first to go. I was shocked that she'd think that. It sickens me to think that the prejudice she feared would exist may be edging its way toward being encouraged through government policy.

Aside from the moral arguments, there are solid practical reasons why any actions that discourage migrant workers are a bad idea (and knowing you're on a list of an employer's non-British employees certainly doesn't seem like an employment perk). As this blog has covered before:
  • As people live longer, the proportion of our lives when we aren't contributing to the state but are instead benefiting from it increases (> Two Types of People)
  • The strong weight of evidence is that immigration has a positive impact on public finances, that immigrants make a positive fiscal contribution (> Immigration and the EU referendum)
Politicians are generally shy about saying this (although to the SNP's credit, they're not): we need to encourage foreign workers to come here, to work and to generate taxes (to help the state look after our increasing older population).

But these practical considerations shouldn't distract us from the core issue here: context.

These proposals are made in the context of a winning Brexit campaign that shamelessly played to the xenophobes among us. I'm certainly not suggesting that most Brexit voters were xenophobic, but you can be pretty sure that all xenophobes were Brexit voters. To pretend that the EU referendum hasn't stoked the flames of narrow-minded nationalism would be disingenuous; to make proposals to appease those who seek to stigmatise non-British workers is downright irresponsible. And passing the inflammatory sound-bites to the press by holding them in a large pair of tweezers doesn't absolve Amber Rudd of responsibility either.

That this could be argued to be building on previous ill-judged sound-bites like Gordon Brown's "British Jobs for British workers" is no defence - two wrongs don't make a right.

My Scottish nationalist friends really hate me making this point, but the rise of nationalism in its various guises is a common theme here. Ironically this point was made by the SNP's erstwhile spin-doctor-in-chief, Kevin Pringle, when he tweeted "we're certainly living in a Nationalist state now"
Nobody likes to be spooked by their own reflection, so it's perhaps understandable that Mr Pringle acts as if the flavour of nationalism that drives these proposals bears no relationship to his beloved Scottish Nationalism. I was even told on Twitter that "at least Scottish nationalism is pure", which to be honest didn't comfort me greatly.

The two brands of nationalism we've been witnessing in the UK over the last few years are different, but they share a common, grubby thread. They both focus on"othering" - narrowing the definition of us and seeking to define a them to blame for all our woes.

Of course the source of Pringle's barely concealed glee is that this plays into the hands of the Scottish Nationalists. Continued grievance rhetoric from the SNP fuels an English back-lash that runs from calls for English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) to a rise in the mirror of Scottish Nationalism, English Nationalism. The gap between us grows and the SNP's dream of separation from "them" seems closer day by day.

But if the SNP are reaching for the YouGov poll to show how different we are when it comes to attitudes to foreign workers, they'll be disappointed. With all the usual opinion poll caveats required1, SNP supporters are if anything more likely to argue for prioritising British workers than Labour or Lib Dem voters;

From the same source, SNP voters also appear more likely to strongly support the proposal than either Labour or Lib Dem voters

So it seems Mr Pringle may have to swallow the fact that those who favour Scottish independence are - on this thorny issue at least - not so different from the rest of the UK, they're just different from Tory and UKIP voters (which, despite some of the more simple-minded protestations you might hear, isn't the same thing at all).

One last cross-cut of that YouGov data shows 50% support for the proposal in Scotland (vs. 59% UK-wide). I don't think a 50:50 split in Scotland really justifies the virtue-signalling on this issue that we've been hearing from the usual SNP suspects.

So Vive la similarit√©?  Well no, not in this case. I'd rather we were bound by a clear shared desire to welcome and treat foreign workers as we do any others, rather than roughly half of us having an apparent shared desire to discriminate against them.

Is it too much to hope that when people think this through a little further, the consensus will shift to condemning this as being a truly awful ideas?


1. YouGov base their surveys on a large online panel - these specific results are from a survey of 5,875 respondents. To illustrate the sample size implications, if split proportionately by party the implied coverage of SNP supporters is therefore likely to be c.240 (50% of 8.2% of the UK population). My twitter friends suggest therefore a standard error of +/-4% on those figures. Of course we are relying on YouGov's weightings to adjust from the online sample to a representative UK profile - I don't think anybody needs reminding these days that all opinion polls be treated with caution. That said, the result is so striking its impossible to ignore.


Alastair McIntyre said...

I think some information on why British companies employ foreign workers is a good idea. It may well indicate that it's because we have gaps in our work experience that could be filled by better education. It might also be about costs as perhaps foreign workers are being paid less?

I certainly don't agree that foreign workers should be targeted because they are not British but to my knowledge I don't think we have any information on why firms employ foreign workers instead of British workers.

Kevin Hague said...

Maybe they just employ them when they apply and appear best qualified for the job - why wouldn't that sometimes be the case, you're surely not suggesting British workers are inherently superior?

Anonymous said...

I have worked inside a British corporation that employed EU nationals in jobs that could have gone to British workers. The primary motivation was bias toward the British working class - working among the EU nationals made the persons participating in the hiring decisions feel that they were more cosmopolitan, that their workplace was more sophisticated, and that the accents they listened to every day were more melodious.

Also, I'd like to point out that in Britain there is only one truly nationalistic, truly discriminatory-on-the-basis-of-national-origin piece of legislation in place: the one that says out of the whole of the EU, only students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland have to pay tuition at Scottish Universities.

Alastair McIntyre said...

I'm more wondering if British workers are actually inferior.

Stephen Wigmore said...

Are you suggesting British workers are inherently inferior? Presumably not, so I think we can assume Alistair isn't suggesting the converse.

We have a responsibility for training and equipping British workers to succeed that we obviously don't for foreign workers. Knowing what industries and very large companies are employing more or less foreign workers should help us work out where we're falling behind and why, and how the education and employment support systems can possibly adjust and compensate.

I still don't think this idea is worth it. I presume it'll be quietly dropped now. I commend you for looking beyond the hype. All the angry condemnations have been for the idea of publishing a list of names of foreign workers in each business, which is just a different and worse policy to possibly forcing some (large) businesses to publish the proportion of foreign workers they employ (alongside the torrent of other information they must publish). Both may be bad, but the 2nd actual policy is obviously a lot less bad than the first. But hey, that doesn't generate outrage as conveniently.

Nial said...

"I'm more wondering if British workers are actually inferior"

Don't forget you're comparing people who have had the gumption & drive to go to another country with the indigenous population who have had everything handed to them on a plate.

A better comparison would be the foreign worker against a British person working abroad.

Another angle on listing foreign workers....
I come from a technology background and I know in IT a lot of jobs are advertised at rates that aren't realistic for a local to survice on. Nobody applies which becomes a 'skills shortage' allowing workers from say India to be brought in on much lower salaries (they are supposed to be paid at least a minimum amount but I don't think this is ever checked).

I'm not sure if listing foreign workers would help here though.

Andrew Veitch said...

My emotional reaction to the speeches at the conference which covered wrecking the car industry, destroying the City and undermining the higher education system was that I've never been so ashamed to be British. As you know I write that as someone who was very active in Better Together.

I agree with you that it's not a case that the English people are worse than the Scottish people. However I do believe that the English political leadership and the English press are worse than their Scottish equivalents.

The Houses of Parliament are no longer functioning properly as the constitutional system relies on there being an effective opposition. For the foreseeable future the Labour Party is unable to provide that opposition.

The English right wing press meanwhile have lied and lied for years about Europe. Although the Scottish press have their flaws they haven't poisoned the atmosphere in the same way.

All of the Scottish political leaders have behaved well. Compare Ruth Davidson with Theresa May. Or compare the English nationalists at the European Parliament who shouted abuse at 12 year old children for playing Ode to Joy with the speech of Alyn Smith.

The big question is what will happen as the economic costs of Brexit hit. In general extremism increases as economies fail. Hopefully Britain will be an exception to that rule.

fanger35 said...

I ran a business where we employed from time to time in the past an Australian, a New Zealander and Pakistani and more recently a Pole. We also interviewed a Romanian, Bulgarian and Spaniard for jobs in the business without taking much regard for their nationality.

These people were professionally qualified so our decision was largely based on language ability, residency and plans for permanency in this country as we didn't wish to have to replace staff after a short tenure in the job.

I did occur to me however the effect of the loss of these highly qualified people would have on their own country. Losing significant numbers of Doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers and others working in trades must effect an economy fairly dramatically. In fact the Polish government, I believe, is pleading for almost 3 million of its nationals to return to help growth and economic security at home.

Free movement of labour is a laudable but it can lead to unintended consequences which can have a permanent and negative effect on developing nations........I think we should bear in mind when rich economies encourage immigration we are depriving other nations the basic right and ability to provide a better life for their citizens and that can't be laudable at all!!

Drew said...

'The two brands of nationalism we've been witnessing in the UK over the last few years are different, but they share a common, grubby thread. They both focus on"othering" - narrowing the definition of us and seeking to define a them to blame for all our woes.'

How far does that argument extend? Are you suggesting all nationalism is intrinsically all the same?

Do you genuinely believe deep down Mahatma Gandhi had the same core values as General Franco? Or that nobel peace prize winner John Hume is no better than the Brighton bomber?

To extend your argument to its logical conclusion and condemn all politics based on identity and nationalism, the world would be better off if the great colonial powers like Spain, Portugal, France and Britain still controlled most of the globe and the people of Eastern Europe were still suffering under Soviet oppression.

For all the SNP's faults, under their government there has been no large scale civil disorder of any kind leading to serious injuries or loss of life.

Politics based on class issues however is no stranger to wide scale violent disorder, the Miner's Strikes, the Poll Tax riots and 2010 student protests being just a couple of examples off the top of my head.

The difference between the SNP and the current UK Government is there are plenty of checks and balances stopping the SNP from having too much power. The majority of the press doesn't publically back the SNP, the Scottish Parliament is designed so that the SNP winning an overall majority is a fluke, the Council elections are also based on PR so the overall majority of the voting public that doesn't support the SNP can always maintain political influence.

The worrying thing under the UK Government under FPTP and new constituency boundaries, it looks like it will keep its majority for the next decade or so at least. Then throw in an inept and incompetent opposition which is non existent and the fact the majority of the newspapers are Conservative leaning. Finally, the EU used to be a break on the more extreme elements of the Conservative party and British politics but now we are leaving the EU, the right wing of the Tories are in the ascendancy and can wield power unchecked.

Kevin Hague said...


you make good points - but;

1. the checks and balances you mention would be gone if the SNP's wish of indy was achieved
2. Ghandi wouldn't have lost a referendum: there were very real grievances
3. imho the controlling instincts revealed by the SNP's actions (from centralising police though desire to gag and control the press up to and including propaganda that goes way past spin and into simple lies and false grievance mongering) suggest that Salmond was no Ghandi and Sturgeon is no [i like this sentence structure but can't think of a clever name to put here - "Mother Theresa" doesn't really work]


Drew said...


Fair play, appreciate there is a world of difference between Ghandi and Salmond but that merely highlights the point I was making. Like all politics, nationalism covers a wide spectrum of views and historical/existing examples.

Why do you assume the Scottish Parliament would no longer be based on PR under Indy? IMO there would also be huge pressure for a second revising chamber at Holyrood and more plurality in the newspapers not less. That also implies under Indy the SNP would win every election from Indy until doomsday? Or that the SNP would even exist after Indy, or avoid a split.

Regarding merging the 8 police forces into a single force, only the Liberal Democrats put up serious opposition to this and there was some muted opposition from within Grampian/Northern Constabulary. Most of the police unions like ACPOS, ASPS and the Federation didn't really contest the decision. Labour and the Tories also had a single police force in their election manifestos for the 2011 election. The recent rewriting of history of this as some sort of sinister Nat plot is tin foil hat territory.

Aside from a few individual idiot MPs on Twitter, what serious allegations have been brought against the Scottish Government regarding attempts at gagging the press? And I mean in bringing forward actual legislation or policy. Having worked in the media previously, some of their SPADs and press office can come across a little heavy handed at times as deadlines approach but on the whole they are no worse than anything I've experienced from the other parties. If anything, the SNP were a bigger pain in the backside when they were in opposition.

The reason I think the opposition in Scotland have been poor at beating the SNP in recent elections is partly because too often they let their emotions cloud their rational judgement. Opposition is the most important tool in a democracy but it has to be exercised well for it to work. As the SNP learned through the lean years of the 1980s and 1990s, tribalism and hysteria doesn't work.

Kevin Hague said...

The most tribally hysterical comments I've read recently have been those by the likes of Mhairi Black accusing the Tories of being reminiscent of Nazis (over Tory policy ideas I also very strongly disagree with btw)

Drew said...

She wasn't the only person to make that comparison with a few journalists and a radio presenter drawing the same conclusion. I don't personally agree with it and don't find comments like that particularly helpful.

But back to the main point you made, I'm pretty uncomfortable with some of the SNP's history, elements of their supporters and the tone of some of their politics in general.

But correct me if I'm wrong, I don't think I've ever heard a senior SNP politician in the last 20 years make an official speech or policy announcment regarding limiting the number of English workers in Scotland or requesting Scottish firms to list the number of English staff members.

Kevin Hague said...

No Drew, of course not - I simply mentioned on Twitter that I *presumed* the 46% of SNP supporters who supported the idea of declaring foreign worker percentages would therefore include English workers in that *were we to be independent* on account of - you know - that making the English then foreigners by definition

Kevin Hague said...

ps. I thought James O'Brien (who I'm normally a fan of) doing the Mein Kampf extract was well dodgy

Drew said...

Fair point. Although at the risk of being pedantic, technically and in a legal sense there is no such nationality as English (nor Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish), it would be UK workers (including presumably the Commonwealth nationalities that share British citizenship & visa rights too) those SNP supporters would be seeking to limit in your scenario.

However I've no doubt Scotland is moving further towards the right, perhaps at not quite as fast a pace as England but in the same direction none the less.

With the Conservatives doing so well at the last Scottish elections and the progressive parties like Labour and the Lib Dems doing so badly, it's pretty clear voters with racist views here are beoming more and more confident about expressing them.

Kevin Hague said...

but "technically and in a legal sense" that would presumably all change were Scotland to become independent!

Again: I'm no Tory, but to elide "Conservatives doing well" with "voters with racist views" is lazy and imho helps no-one

Drew said...

I would argue that to write a blog about a speech and policy briefing at the Conservative party conference which then somehow finds a way of linking that speech to the policies of the SNP is lazy and imho helps no one.