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U.K.: Migration From New EU States Heavy, But Welcome

A new British government report shows an unexpectedly large number of migrant workers are flowing into the country from the new EU states in Central and Eastern Europe. Latest figures indicate the number of registered workers from that part of the world is about 13 times higher than authorities had anticipated -- some 176,000 people, the majority of whom are from Poland, which suffers from high unemployment.

London, 3 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Unlike many of the other original EU countries, Britain imposed no restrictions on job-seeking migrants from the new members states, saying the United Kingdom's growing economy needed the extra labor.

The government says it is pleased by the migrants' contribution to the work force. Labor experts agree. Amy Stockton, spokeswoman for the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, a British trade association focused on the labor industry, told RFE/RL: "We've always supported EU enlargement, because we have an incredible amount of skill shortages in this country. And we know that migrant workers can provide a positive boost to the U.K. labor market and are contributing to our economy."

Government immigration officials say migrant workers pay taxes and national insurance dues, in addition to filling key jobs in understaffed professions. During the past year, migrants made up just 0.4 percent of the total working-age population, but are estimated to have contributed some $950 million to the British economy.

Statistics in the new report come from the British Home Office, where migrants are officially required to register. The report says nearly 100,000 come from Poland alone. Lithuania is in second place, with 26,000, followed by Slovakia and Latvia with 18,500 and 12,000 apiece. Fast-growing Estonia (2,740) and the already prosperous Slovenia (220) provided only a handful of migrant workers.

The vast majority of the migrant workers are between the ages of 18 and 34, with over half of them under 24.

Some migrants from Eastern Europe still face the risk of falling under the control of illegal labor rings, particularly in agriculture. Belinda Brood, a legal expert with the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, says other workers sometimes come to the United Kingdom owing money to unscrupulous recruitment firms at home.

"Maybe an agency in their own country has charged them to provide work-finding services over here," Brood said. "They come over bonded, so that all the money they earn goes into paying this bond. People are not aware in the [new EU] countries that it is unlawful in this country to charge people for providing work-finding services."

Brood says that migrants can come to Britain and register with an employment agency for free. Ethnic communities also can help new migrants find work.

Government officials and recruitment organizations praise migrant workers for what they say is their skill and determination. The general public appears to have warmed to the trend as well. Keith Berry, a manager in the town of Kingston-on-Thames outside London, said: "I have absolutely no problem. We're all part of the EU, and there should be free movement of labor. I work for a company in Germany, so there is no problem."

Helen O'Reilly, a shop assistant in London, agrees. "Once they come in here legally [it's fine] -- I think it's when they don't, that's where the problem is," she said. "But, regardless coming in, they're filling the jobs, you know, that need to be done. I don't have any problem with this."

The majority of EU migrant workers go into administration, business, and management, as well as restaurant and hotel work. The agriculture, health, and construction sectors have also attracted large numbers from the east. The Home Office report notes some migrants have even found work as actors, circus performers, writers, and psychiatrists.