Who are the UK's foreign workers?

Arrivals board at Heathrow airport

On New Year's Day, construction worker Victor Spiresau was greeted by politicians, reporters and photographers at Luton Airport - the first Romanian immigrant to arrive in Britain after the controversial lifting of employment controls on Romania and Bulgaria.

Victor became the reluctant symbol of what many predicted would be a vast wave of East Europeans flocking to the UK.

MPs and newspapers warned of a "flood" of hundreds of thousands of poor Romanians and Bulgarians who would strain our welfare system and public services. It was an argument that played directly into anxieties about immigration and the influence of the EU.

But today's figures, the first official estimate of workers from Romania and Bulgaria since the transitional employment restrictions were removed on the so-called A2 countries in January, suggest there has been no flood. If anything, the reverse.

There were an estimated 144,000 Romanian and Bulgarian workers in the UK at the end of 2013. Now the respected Labour Force Survey puts the figure at 140,000 at the end of March - 4,000 fewer people from A2 countries estimated to be working here since controls were lifted.

The figure is still 29,000 higher than the number estimated for the same period last year, but that rise occurred while employment restrictions were still in place. The argument that lifting them would lead to huge extra numbers coming here from Romania and Bulgaria is not reflected in official figures.

Start Quote

People will tend to move to places that offer better prospects, and within the European Union that freedom is enshrined in the EU Treaty”

End Quote

However, the numbers do demonstrate a long-term rise in workers from the A2 countries coming to the UK. Back in 2001, the Labour Force Survey estimated there were only around 6,000 citizens from those countries employed in Britain.

Numbers grew steadily as the former communist states developed closer relationships with the West, and after they were invited to join the European Union in 2007, 100,000 more Romanian and Bulgarian workers came in just six years, despite "transitional" employment controls.

But today's figures are a reflection of a wider phenomenon. There has been a significant increase in the number of workers from many other EU countries coming to Britain in recent months, notably the A8 countries including Poland, the Czech Republic and Latvia.

The first three months of this year saw a jump of 74,000 in the number of workers from those eight accession countries compared with the last quarter of 2013. Year-on-year, the increase is 115,000 - one of the highest increases seen since Poles first started coming to the UK in large numbers in 2004.

Overall, the number of workers from elsewhere in the EU has risen 168,000 in the past year - mobile labour attracted by the impressive employment situation in the UK.

Here, of course, is the real issue. People will tend to move to places that offer better prospects, and within the European Union that freedom is enshrined in the EU Treaty.

Theresa may Home secretary, Theresa May: UK "committed to freedom of movement."

"Freedom of movement in Europe is one of the central achievements of the European integration process and one of the most important and visible benefits of the European Union for its citizens," the Home Secretary Theresa May stated in a letter last year. "We are fully committed to the common European right to the freedom of movement. We will always welcome Union citizens who move to another EU country to work."

However, the UK is not alone in questioning the impact this freedom can have on welfare and public services, particularly for a country that outperforms other parts of the EU economically. The government is tightening up access to some benefits for EU citizens where permissible, and looking to renegotiate the rules still further.

The letter signed by Mrs May was sent to the President of the European Council for Justice and Home Affairs jointly with representatives from Austria, Germany and the Netherlands.

Among richer and more economically stable countries within the EU, there is a shared concern that positive headlines about financial success are matched by troublesome headlines about immigration.

Today's Labour Force Survey figures show that the UK's employment rate has risen to probably its highest ever level among domestic workers - 72.8%, marginally higher than the figure for non-UK citizens (69.5%).

While the number of foreign-born citizens working here has risen 178,000 in the past year, the number of UK citizens in employment is up 563,000. A remarkable 400,000 fewer people are claiming unemployment benefits in the UK compared with a year ago - a massive 26.4% drop.

It is impressive numbers like these that explain why workers in many other EU countries think Britain might be a good place to look for a job.

Mark Easton, Home editor Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

More on This Story


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    PS @526

    Whether by 'losing' in trade wars, or by unwittingly and unhappily attracting cheap labour, en masse, boosting remittances to historical victim-cultures, a very crude equilibration of global shares is in progress, unfortunately with as yet no learning of lessons here or abroad from the great harms in previous iterations, our chance passing if not passed to lead the way on REAL democracy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    @522. JasonEssex " . . . around 8bil was remited by Western Union alone last year from the UK to Poland by polish living here . . . "

    And while they were earning that money, were they living on thin air? When it comes to shifting money out of the country, I suspect money sent home by immigrants (on which tax has probably been paid) pales into insignificance compared to off-shore tax evasion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.


    You are right to ask what makes people pro or anti EU.

    In my case it's because I've taken the time to research properly the effects of EU rules on: H&S at work, including rest time; the environment; food, medicine and agrichem safety; trading standards; ECHR-implicit private property protection; and general freedom e.g to retire, study or work elsewhere. These apply to all, rich or poor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.

    The BBC seems to me to have done its bit, to help the tabloids, in stoking the anti-Bulgarian/Polish/Romanian frenzy, and would no doubt (of course) be HORRIFIED at the merest suggestion of racism. But why no word from them, on the effects on job prospects for the British, of the many white S. hemisphere people here, e.g. as lifeguards, surf instructors and bar staff?

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    I wonder how many people who are pro-eu either:-
    1. Work for them
    2. Are wealthy
    3. Own a business
    Anti-eu and see the effect on
    1. housing
    2. public services
    3. wages
    4. jobs

  • rate this

    Comment number 522.

    "UK economy needs people to spend money in this country to get it going " "make up the gap" Except many of them don't, around 8bil was remited by Western Union alone last year from the UK to Poland by polish living here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 521.

    Patriotism is when you put your country before yerself. Many here seem to think it's when you allow your country to look after you, when you don't take responsibility, when you blame everyone from immigrants to people with different political views than yours for everything... Basically, people who want the country to grind to a halt and pander to their failure to adjust to the 21st century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    518. JP
    Privileged Liberals

    What is a privileged liberal?

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    516.margaret howard

    True & more important patriotism is the sustainability of the planet & humanity as a whole & not to individual nations defined by national boundary, patriotism to nation is a myth, it is fundamentally a form of nationalism.

    We may be part of individual nations, but we are all part of the same planet - the bigger picture, still largely ignored

  • rate this

    Comment number 518.

    Privileged Liberals waxing lyrical on immigration.

    Mr Easton the likes of you and your organisation are the problem re: immigration policy.

    Go and work for the Guardian sir where you can continue your dogma and we can be left in peace with the truth and an organisation thats objective.

  • rate this

    Comment number 517.

    512.margaret howard

    House inflation of Brit immigrants on Spanish/other communitys is a problem.

    But that does not detract that poor immigrants into UK are a net loss, due to in work benefits, & more importantly the negative effect on Balance of Payments.

    Poor immigrants into UK need to 1st export the value of food & other imports for sustaining them, on top of receipt of benefits

  • rate this

    Comment number 516.

    507 "Truth"

    "You have no idea of being patriotic"

    "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel"

    Samuel Johnson 1775

    Holds true today over 200 years later!

  • rate this

    Comment number 515.

    @507. Truth logic sustainability the final frontiers . . "You have no idea of being patriotic."
    Oh dear. Obviously there is no room for subtlety or irony in your little world. UK economy needs people to spend money in this country to get it going and provide jobs. Brits moving abroad undermine this, but it's OK because immigrants come here and make up the gap. It's the way it goes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 514.

    If push came to shove and immigration would be cut. employers would find ways to work around it. They are more interested in keeping their business afloat than playing charity to natives who aren't really of any use to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 513.

    420. JasonEssex
    .A racist would want none and to kick out all non-brits. So not racist

    What about William Henwood? And Sanjeet Thandi's admissions?

  • rate this

    Comment number 512.

    496 "Truth"

    "comparing these Brits to the financially poor who come en mass to UK is fundamentally DECEIT & LIES"

    Only in as much as the poor who come here want to work and do the jobs the locals don't want whereas our rich move abroad because it's cheap and then inflate the housing markets as they have done in Spain, Portugal etc so that the locals can't afford to buy any more

  • rate this

    Comment number 511.

    492 It_s

    "Oh, so Farage didn't even have to pretend he was doing anything, he just lined his pockets"

    Bit like the 800 members of our House of Lords many of whom sign in, get their £300 daily 'allowance' (the latest one said he needed the money to get someone look after his chickens) and sign out again half an hour later

  • rate this

    Comment number 510.

    I completely understand the need to use foreign labour, and the financial benefits for employers. But for every foreign worker, there is a UK person receiving LOTS of benefits to - if employers using foreigners were taxed to cover this, all of a sudden UK workers would be very attractive!

  • rate this

    Comment number 509.

    420. JasonEssex
    "A racist would want none and to kick out all non-brits. So not racist"
    Ah I SEE!. The convenient UKIP definition of a racist is someone who hates EVERY non-British race. So someone OK with Italian and Greek waiters, but detests the Polish, Jewish etc. is NOT one. Thanks for clearing that up. What about the teeming Australian surf instructors, bar staff etc. in Cornwall, then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 508.

    "A remarkable 400,000 fewer people are claiming unemployment benefits in the UK compared with a year ago - a massive 26.4% drop."

    Not that they've found jobs though, they've just been demonised and forced to jump through ridiculous hoops.


Page 1 of 27



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.