London, 16 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Britain is assessing the impact of a larger-than-anticipated influx of workers from the new European Union member countries.
The government had expected some 13,000 workers from the new EU nations to register to work in Britain this year, but the number has already exceeded 90,000. The British government has presented the figures in a positive light, noting that vacancies in service industries are being filled, that the new workers are paying taxes and contributing to the national insurance scheme, and that the workers are injecting tens of millions of dollars of their own money into the British economy.
Andrew Green is a former member of the British Parliament and the chairman of Migration Watch UK, an independent think tank.
"There is only certain work that needs to be done, and if certain countries join the European Union, then they will be in a more favorable position."
"I think the good news is that the expansion of the European Union to the east is good for everybody -- both politically and strategically, and in the long term, economically. And I think it is very good that people come from Eastern Europe," Green said.
Many of the vacancies being filled by the influx of workers from Eastern Europe are seasonal jobs, such as in the hotel and catering industries, or in agriculture. These are often jobs that Britons themselves prefer not to do, despite the fact that several million -- mostly unskilled -- workers remain unemployed.
But Green says those who are worried by the influx of foreign workers have a point, too.
"I think that the government are very embarrassed to find that their numbers were completely wrong. Our problem is that this is a very crowded island. We are the fifth most crowded country in the world, and people here feel that we are overcrowded. And in terms of actual numbers, we don't want to take large numbers from all parts of the world. The problem is that the scale of immigration into Britain is now very high. Last year, we received nearly a quarter-of-a-million more foreigners who arrived than left," Green said.
According to British government figures from November, some 50,000 of the new EU workers came from Poland, 15,000 from Lithuania, and more than 8,000 from Slovakia. Most are under the age of 35.
But some experts say government estimates are off by a factor of 10.
Anthony Browne is an immigration specialist at "The Times" newspaper in London:
"Well, the reactions have been split, because it depends which way you look at it. Some people have hailed it as a fantastic thing -- all these people propping up the rural economy in all sorts of parts of Britain. On the other hand, people who really think that Britain is overcrowded -- it does have a severe housing shortage and road congestion -- think it is wrong," Browne said.
Green of Migration Watch notes the government has run other schemes to attract seasonal workers from other parts of the world, and that these will now have to be scaled down. For example, there has been a quota allowing some 10,000 temporary workers to come to Britain from India, Bangladesh, and the Far East every year.
Brown says many of these workers are now being forced to compete with Eastern Europeans for jobs they had previously counted on.
"I think most people are unhappy about the government's accounting. Most people in Britain don't object to workers coming over as long as they do work, and they contribute to the economy -- although that does depend on where you are. If you are a farmer employing people on your farm, if you are a home owner, then you are very glad there are cheap and good builders coming over. But if you are in the trade competing with people, and if your wages are pushed down, then you are not very happy," Browne said.
Uncertainty about the number of workers expected to arrive from the new EU countries forced the British government to reduce the number of work permits for seasonal workers from non-EU countries, such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia. Last year, there were some 25,000 work permits issued to workers from these nations. This year, Browne explains, that number has been trimmed to around 16,000.
"The reason the government has cut down on these schemes, and on a variety of different schemes, is because of the fact there are 73 million people in Eastern Europe who have just been given the right to live and work in the U.K. And that means Britain doesn't need to import workers from other countries so much. Basically, the government has been saying: 'More Eastern Europeans, fewer people from elsewhere,'" Browne said.
Green agrees that the British government is clearly under pressure to reduce the number of foreign workers it admits from non-EU nations.
"That's just logical," he says. "There is only certain work that needs to be done, and if certain countries join the European Union, then they will be in a more favorable position."