November 21, 2017

British Companies See Value in Continentwide Labor Pool

LONDON — With several big construction projects under way in Britain, the multinational company CH2M Hill searched in vain for six months for a qualified tunneling engineer.

Only a few weeks ago did the company find a candidate, in Portugal. CH2M Hill quickly made plans to bring him north — no visa or work permits were required, thanks to a European Union policy that allows the free flow of labor across the borders of the 27-country bloc.

With signs that Britain might seek an exit from the European Union, businesses like CH2M Hill are starting to focus on what they might lose in the labor force if the country does leave.

For non-Europeans, securing a work permit can take three months, so the European Union’s labor law is a huge help, said Michael I. Glenn, CH2M Hill’s director of international operations.

“It’s incredibly important; we struggle with that constantly,” he said. “These programs and projects that we do are of a scale that we have to move our expertise around.”

Continental Europe provides a nearby pool of potential employees with the experience, skills and engineering qualifications needed to work in Britain, added Andrea Laws, the company’s director of international recruitment.

Britain, with 61.9 million people, has an estimated 40.6 million people of working age. But together, the 27 countries in the European Union, population 494.9 million, represent a much vaster labor pool, about 329.7 million strong. (Only citizens of Romania and Bulgaria are restricted from working freely in Britain, and they will gain that right in January when temporary restrictions imposed by Britain must lapse.)

Despite Britain’s unemployment rate of 7.8 percent, many businesses say that without access to the European Union’s labor pool, they would have trouble filling all sorts of jobs, whether because they cannot find enough people with the right skills in Britain or because there are some jobs that Britons are reluctant to do.

A report this month from the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a business lobbying group, concluded that Britain’s leaving the European Union would “have a direct impact on firms’ ability to do business,” on “their access to skills” and, therefore, on the British government’s tax revenue.

The report also said the 2.2 million European Union immigrants were “much more likely” to be employed and less likely to be reliant on public welfare benefits than either British citizens or immigrants from outside the European Union.

But as in the United States, where immigration legislation has been hotly debated for months, migrant labor remains a contentious issue in Britain. A growing populist force, the U.K. Independence Party, blames the European Union for allowing hundreds of thousands of workers outside the country to settle here.

“The business perspective, broadly speaking, clashes with the No. 1 concern about the European Union from the public,” said Mats Persson, director of Open Europe, a research institute that favors a looser relationship between Britain and the European Union. His solution would be to restrict welfare benefits for migrants rather than their right to work in Britain.

British opponents of open borders point to the large influx of workers from the former Communist states of Eastern Europe in the last decade. When Poland and seven other ex-Communist countries joined the European Union in 2004, the British government underestimated the scale of likely migration and chose not to impose temporary work restrictions.

Yet in one of the interviews conducted for the chamber of commerce report, an unnamed director of a promotional merchandise company said “a number of our suppliers use Polish or Baltic workers to do quite menial tasks because they cannot get local people to do them.”

Big British employers of foreign labor include service businesses like hotels because, the report said, “part of the problem with sectors like retail, leisure and hospitality is their poor image and the belief that they do not offer career progression opportunities.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/08/business/global/british-firms-see-value-in-continent-wide-labor-pool.html?partner=rss&emc=rss