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Polling consistently shows that the majority of the British public favour reducing levels of immigration. However, previous Bright Blue research has shown that those who are ‘highly skilled’ are perceived more favourably than ‘low-skilled’ workers. The majority of Conservative voters do not want to see a reduction in the numbers of ‘high-skilled’ migrants, for example.

This raises the question of who a ‘low-skilled’ migrant actually is. There is no single definition. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) uses the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) definition of “those whose education is less than upper secondary”. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) bases its definition on the time necessary for someone to learn how to perform the task required of them. With the ONS, those in Standard Occupation Classification (SOC) levels one and two are generally considered to be ‘low-skilled’. Level one is defined as having skills usually acquired by the end of education gained at age 16, for example postal workers, with level two requiring a longer period of work experience, such as those in caring occupations. More broadly, ‘low-skilled’ jobs, rightly or wrongly, are often associated with relatively low wages.

While ‘low-skilled’ migration may not be popular or easily definable, it is often essential to certain industries. An estimated 500,000 people born in EU countries are employed in low-wage jobs in the UK. Certain industries are particularly reliant on ‘low-skilled’ migrants, with EU workers constituting more than 20% of the workforce in 18 specialist industries. For example, in meat processing, EU workers account for 44% of all employees.

EU workers are not, of course, synonymous with ‘low-skilled’ work (in fact, 22% of EU migrants are ‘high-skilled’), but over the past decade the majority of ‘low-skilled’ migration has come from EU nations as visa requirements for non-EU migrants have been tightened in an effort to meet the Government’s infamous net migration target. EU-born workers constitute 56% of foreign-born workers in ‘low-skilled’ jobs, with ‘low-skilled’ in this case using a similar definition to the ONS. But this rises to 72% if only foreign-born workers who arrived in the past five years are included.  

Considering its scale, it is important to consider the economic effects of ‘low-skilled’ immigration on the UK. There is a strong evidence base that, overall, immigration has a small and positive economic effect. However, there have been fewer studies into the effects of ‘low-skilled’ migration itself. The MAC concluded that evidence points towards ‘high-skilled’ migrants having a clear benefit to existing residents, but the same could not be said for ‘lower-skilled’. Furthermore, it found that ‘lower-skilled’ migrants do add to overall GDP, but it is line with ‘low-skilled’ work generally.

A review of studies into the ‘low-skilled’ migration suggested that most evidence finds the initial net effect on the wages of native workers to be negative but small. It is important to take into account the differing impact immigration has on different groups of people. UK-born on lower wages, and with lower educational attainment, tend to suffer more negative impacts of ‘low-skilled’ migration, in the short-term at least. The MAC, for example, found that an increase in the number of EU migrants corresponding to 1% of the UK-born working-age population resulted in a 0.8% decrease in UK-born wages for people in the bottom 5-10% of earners and a 0.6% increase in the top 10% of earners. Crucially, this is a short-term calculation, with the difference expected to disappear over time.

What is evident from the above studies is that where ‘lower-skilled’ migrants do have an impact, it is statistically very small, especially in comparison to the impact of ‘higher-skilled’ migrants. There is general agreement that Britain should welcome ‘high-skilled’ workers and popular sentiment that ‘low-skilled’ migration should be reduced. However, ‘low-skilled’ workers are critical to parts of the British economy and evidence suggests that, in the long run, their impact on UK-born workers is negligible.

Sam Lampier is a Researcher at Bright Blue.