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Page last updated at 14:08 GMT, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Are jobless Brits scared by hard work?

Terry Garner
Terry Garner agreed to replace a migrant worker at a potato packing factory

Alex Hudson
BBC News

With high unemployment in Britain there is pressure for British jobs to go to native workers. But are jobless Brits prepared to do the sort of work that in recent years has become dominated by Eastern European migrants?

Since the EU expanded in 2004 a million new migrants have come into the UK from the former Eastern Bloc countries. So what would happen if the immigrants were temporarily relieved from their duties and their jobs given to unemployed Britons? This is what an experiment conducted for a BBC programme tried to do.

Evan Davis
Evan Davis, presenter of The Day the Immigrants Left

I think immigration is a lot more complicated than people think.

It is potentially the most important issue for the UK in the last 10 years.

You have slogans like "foreigners are taking our jobs" or "British workers are lazy" but this programme was an ingenious way to look deeper.

The producers spoke to hundreds of people and tried to find a balance.

What the programme shows is that the issues around unemployment would exist whether or not the immigrants were here.

And the presence of the immigrants has made certain jobs viable that would otherwise not be.

If wages went up, rather than employing more British people, automation would increase.

And so it's not obvious that you get more British jobs by getting rid of foreign employees.

Whether UK workers are making their best efforts or they are demotivated, the issues facing them are similar.

Whatever the reasons are for being unemployed, the challenge - how we deal with people struggling to find work - is the same.

One theory has it that if jobs are taken away from immigrants, unemployed British people will fill those vacancies.

Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, a once prosperous market town, was chosen for the experiment. About 9,000 immigrant workers have passed through there in the past six years, and while many have left, some 3,000 foreign labourers are there at any one time.

Currently, the town has an unemployment figure 40% above the national average and many of the nearly 2,000 unemployed locals blame the influx of overseas labour for their situation.

One of them, 44-year-old Terry Garner, used to work fixing water mains but was made redundant over a year ago. He was one of 12 volunteers chosen for the experiment.

"It's been very, very hard to get a full-time job," says Terry, reflecting on his months on the dole. He has applied for "hundreds of jobs" without any luck.

"You ring round, even for factory jobs, and you can't get them - even for minimum wage. You're either over-qualified or they're just full of people from other countries."

Text-in sick

Terry was given the opportunity to replace a migrant worker for two days at a local potato packing factory. He would be expected to load up to 85 bags a minute over the course of a 12-hour shift. Joining him would be best friend Paul North - who was made redundant from the same job as Terry.

Casual labourer Philip
12 unemployed Brits were offered the chance for temporary employment in place of a migrant
Three were placed in a potato factory
Four were due to begin work at an Indian restaurant
Three worked on an asparagus farm
The last two worked on home renovations
All workers were offered a two day trial to prove themselves

Things got off to a bad start when a third volunteer for the experiment, a 26-year-old, failed to turn up. He texted in sick the evening before the start of the experiment.

But Terry was keen to apply himself.

"A lot of youngsters from England don't want this sort of work but it's all I've ever done," he says. "There are a lot of these kids. All they want is unemployment benefit and they're happy. Until they get to work and get money in their pocket and realise they can do [more things]."

Terry's absent teammate wasn't the only one - of the four British workers who received an afternoon's training at an Indian restaurant, only one made it to the restaurant for their first shift. Two had contracted food poisoning, which they later provided doctor's notes for. The third said he had gone to take his ill girlfriend to the hospital.

Work ethic

At the two other venues - an asparagus farm and a home needing renovation - all volunteers turned up. It's often said that manual British workers have priced themselves out of the labour market - with migrants willing to toil for less, and bosses happy to pay lower rates without sacrificing standards.

A Home Office report issued from 2007 - before the recession - found immigration for the lowest-paid, unskilled workers had "very modest negative effects". But that deflationary effect was, in turn, buttressed by the national minimum wage.

Migrant workers working in a potato factory
The potato factory employs migrants because it thinks they are reliable

One of the employers in the BBC experiment, landlord Colin Hopper, says he, at least, does not drop his standard £150 a day rate for his Lithuanian and Polish workers.

"It's just that the people that really want to get [work] get it," he says.

And Terry, it seems, is prepared to work for the minimum wage offered for his potato-packing job. With his wife already in part-time work, Terry had not been receiving Jobseekers' Allowance. It meant the amount he received for the potato packing, "didn't matter. It was all a bonus".

And he had no problem with working alongside the migrant labourers.

"I don't dislike [foreign workers] and I've worked with Polish people before. Now don't get me wrong, they're a good bunch of lads but I still think they are taking Englishmen's jobs."

But he was not expecting just how hard he had to work for what amounted to little-more than the minimum wage.

"I've earned £400 a day fixing water mains and never worked like that. You're on your feet all the time and it's very hot. It was the middle of summer... the first [day] killed me to be honest, being out of work so long, but the second day was easy."

Dead-end jobs

But what about those volunteers who didn't turn up for work? Not all of them had sick notes. And the one who did make it into the Indian restaurant was sitting down enjoying the food when others were working.

Terry and Paul with their workmate Sandro
Terry and Paul with their workmate Sandro

It all feeds into the notion, held by some, that the British unemployed aren't prepared to knuckle down to hard work.

It's not entirely untrue, says professor of sociology Richard Sennett, who has written extensively on the personal effects of globalisation on workers. But it's not so much the fault of individuals as government and society as a whole.

"What happened to British capitalism is that in the 1980s there was a great change in the culture of work and it promised everyone could become upwardly mobile," says Prof Sennett. "So crap jobs became dead-end jobs."

While migration and recession has put the pinch on unskilled British workers, the belief in upward-mobility persists, he says.

In America, from where Prof Sennett hails, workers are starting to lower their expectations.

"In Britain, the social welfare is structured so you can actually stay on the dole longer. What you are seeing is people who still feel they may have some choice."

And comparing Brits with Eastern Europeans is not presenting a level playing field, says Professor Sennett.

The average Eastern European worker is young and "putting aside cash to go home maybe to start a car washing business or open a small shop".

"You are working to an end and so you are willing to put up with the crap. You are not looking at your job as a future but as a temporary activity. It's about concentrating into a short time as much labour as you can. They're not going to do that all their lives."

House repossessed

As for Terry, and Paul, both were encouraged to apply for longer-term jobs. But the factory where they were said there has been no suitable vacancies.

Ashley in an Indian restaurant
Ashley was the only one of the planned four to attend his first shift

Since then, Terry's home life has hit choppy waters.

"Before I was made redundant, me and my family were fine," says Terry. "We've actually now gone through a repossession order for the house. We've been in court twice now.

"A lot of people are in the same boat as me. Paul has lost his house, he's moved into rented accommodation."

But there is good news.

Both Paul and Terry have now found jobs, fitting cables for a communications company, and Terry has applied for a mortgage rescue scheme.

Terry still believes that the British work as hard as people from any other country and he wants to see British jobs protected.

"Yes, [migrants] are hard working people. But we should have a system like Australia then we wouldn't have so many here.

"At the end of the day, they're taking jobs we could be doing."

The Day the Immigrants Left is on BBC One on Wednesday, 24 February at 2100 GMT.

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