British Pub Landlord Is Right About Immigration

With his shock of uncombed blonde hair, national tour calling for a “hard” Brexit and ability to inspire confidence in ordinary people, it’s hard to overstate the impact that one person’s enthusiasm had on British public opinion toward leaving the European Union. No, not Boris Johnson.

That description of course also applies to the prime minister, but Johnson is a politician, while Tim Martin, chairman of JD Wetherspoon Plc, a chain of pubs and restaurants, is a prominent business leader in an industry most Brits consider a matter of national security. When Martin told his customers during the fraught Brexit wars that leaving the EU didn’t faze him in the slightest, they were ready to order whatever he had.

So when he called this week for higher EU migration to help the British hospitality sector, it raised more eyebrows than beer glasses. Brexiters were bewildered at the intervention, reported in the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday. Limiting immigration, and thus taking back control of Britain’s borders, was a big theme for many who campaigned to leave the bloc.

Remainers harrumphed. The free movement of labor is a sine qua non of the EU’s single market. “I really hope Tim Martin never runs into Tim Martin. He’s gonna be so angry!” tweeted pro-EU campaigner Femi Oluwole.

Around the time of the Brexit vote, Martin argued that Britain benefited so much from EU migration, culturally and economically, that it should continue to allow any EU nationals to live and work in Britain. But he also argued for a “hard” Brexit — which took the U.K. out of the single market — and said “employers like my company will just have to work harder and pay more.”

It is, in theory, possible to be pro-Brexit and also pro-immigration — the key for liberal-minded Brexiters is that Britain controls the laws, not the EU. But a bit like Johnson’s “Global Britain” mantra, the reality is messier. It was always likely that a hard Brexit would lead to the labor constraints that Martin now wants to fix through a more liberal visa regime for EU neighbors.

After the uproar over the Telegraph report, Martin noted his views on immigration have been consistent and he stressed that his business is having no trouble hiring staff. Problem is, many others are.

The hospitality charity Springboard surveyed 15 of the U.K.’s largest employers in the sector, with a combined workforce of 103,500: Nearly 90% found it difficult to recruit for kitchen and back-of-house jobs, while one in three didn’t have enough staff to handle reopening. The recruitment website Caterer.com says one in 10 workers have left the sector.

The proximate cause of the labor supply shortage is not so much Brexit but the pandemic. There were 355,000 fewer employees in the industry in the year to March despite a generous furlough program that’s been extended until September. Many who lost their jobs were young people who stopped looking for work, but are likely to be reabsorbed once things reopen more fully.

It may seem a little rich for Martin to be calling for opening the immigration door a little wider, but he’s right to open a debate about the new U.K. “points-based immigration system.” It treats EU citizens the same as those from the rest of the world, making it harder for low-skilled workers from countries the hospitality sector has traditionally depended on for staff to enter.

It was advertised as an Australian-style system, but unlike Australia, the U.K. now requires visa applicants to have a job offer, tying them to a specific job. Migrants who can’t meet the annual salary threshold of 25,600 pounds ($36,265) are unlikely to get one. Exceptionally skilled workers can qualify for a visa without a job, but that’s no good to pub and restaurant managers.

Immigration is forever a hot-button topic, but the facts support the case for loosening the reins some. A number of studies on the employment impact of immigration have found little or no effect. Low-wage workers lose out some, though the effect diminishes over time

European migrants could return if the jobs are there, but some may be deterred by the hassle of having to apply for a visa and reports of workers without the necessary papers being held in detention centers. In the meantime, the shortages are likely to bring higher wages and prices, at least for a while. Wage stagnation was one of the issues that fed into the Brexit vote, so some may celebrate the first and tolerate the second.

Yet that’s not a satisfying long-term answer. Britain’s low birth rate and aging population means it will need foreign-born labor for many jobs. Over time, the U.K. will be better served by improving training and skill levels for those who can’t find work, not imposing artificial barriers to people eager to come serve them a pint.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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