British businesses and the immigration debate - Business Works
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British businesses and the immigration debate

Peter Kolarz, Francis Hutcheson Institute In recent weeks, there was much public debate about footage from UK airports featuring endless queues at passport control, disgruntled passengers waiting for up to 4 hours to enter the country, apologetic remarks from home-office and UK border agency officials, and criticism from just about everywhere else. Aside from the issue of how our airports intend to handle the increased influx of passengers during the Olympic and Paralympic games, the pictures we have seen are also indicative of some more fundamental problems with the current immigration policy, especially with regard to creating successful businesses.

Twenty years ago, the sociologist Anthony Giddens noted that centre-right parties from the 1980s onwards tended to advocate two key policy areas: on the one hand free markets, de-regulation of business environments and facilitating flexible and dynamic economies; on the other, long-established conservative outlooks such as family-values, traditional morality and national identity. These two clusters of modern centre-right agendas, Giddens continued, frequently contradict each other, for instance where mobility and re-location demanded by free markets puts stress on community cohesion or possibilities for permanently settled families. Twenty years on, the contradiction he observed is evidenced most clearly in the UK’s stance on immigration.

Contrary to espousals from the far-right and elements of the tabloid press, evidence shows that the UK immigration system is extremely stringent, especially when compared to our European neighbours. With less than nine per cent of UK residents classed as anything other than ethnically ‘white British or Irish’ in the 2001 census, a figure unlikely to increase much in the up-coming results of the 2011 census, and with relatively stable levels of net migration into and out of the UK, anti-immigration espousals are quickly stripped of their substance. Not being part of the Schengen agreement in and of itself greatly reduces the free movement of people into and out of the country, regardless of EU-membership. At a more fundamental level, so does the UK’s basic characteristic of being surrounded by sea and being relatively far away from developing or war-torn regions of the world. Equally importantly, the UK visa-system baffles non-EU citizens in terms of stringency and inefficiency alike.

Brought to its current form to protect UK citizens and residents from outside threats, to control size and skill of its population, and possibly even to construct and maintain a certain notion of ‘Britishness’ by legislating on who ‘belongs’ here and who does not, the protectionist agenda of UK immigration policy raises concerns for businesses for a number of key reasons:

  • Potential industrial clients and customers from overseas face extensive bureaucratic procedures if they wish to visit the UK even for a simple meeting or site-inspection.
  • Even skilled and professional workers from overseas face regular re-evaluations of visas and work permits, often involving retention of travel documents for several weeks.
  • The same is true for overseas students and early career researchers, who rarely have the chance to establish a career and contribute to UK innovation upon expiry of their student visas.
  • More generally, extensive, inefficient and bureaucratic procedures immediately give visitors a poor image of the UK and may easily deflect investors small and large elsewhere.

A sound immigration policy with key security checks is of course important: the UK must not become a haven for individuals of any kind who explicitly wish to be ‘off the radar’ to pursue dubious ends of whatever kind. Likewise, anti-immigration sentiments often arise among populations when there is a sense that immigration leads to greater job-competition and, more importantly, to lower wages. The issue of importing labour from abroad simply because it is cheaper must be addressed in order to avert social conflict and a rise of the far right. This however falls much more into the realm of social policy and wage-regulation than into immigration policy. Indeed, I have explained previously why a low-wage, low-skill economy is absolutely not the way to go for countries such as the UK, and how businesses themselves might go about steering clear of such a situation.

The question of what shape immigration policy should take relates directly to the question of what exactly a nation-state is, and what it is for. Drawing as briefly as possible on an extensive discourse on the subject, ranging from thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment all the way to contemporary social theory and research, I can summarise: nation-states in this day and age are best understood as imagined communities of individuals, grouped into a territory of commonly agreed borders, where the administrators of the territory strive to create an inclusive society and enable the creation of rules and resources capable of ensuring the best possible ends for all citizens. Moreover, in a global market economy, this does not entail competition and antagonism between individual states, but instead facilitating co-operation, in research, innovation, business ventures, and indeed at the personal level.

But instead of being more-or-less consistent with this approach, the UK’s current immigration system has hallmarks of a siege-mentality, where ‘outsiders’, be they students, high-skill or low-skill workers, short-term visitors and even vulnerable individuals fleeing conflict or starvation are treated implicitly, and often explicitly, as suspicious. Especially in an age where scientific, innovative and economic progress relies increasingly on the possibility to build networks stretching far beyond the boundaries of the nation-state, few things could be more detrimental to improving the lot of its inhabitants. In tough economic times, it is doubly important for business leaders to speak out against the stringency of the current system:

  • Many UK companies are already lobbying the government and relevant government agencies to simplify and where appropriate relax the immigration and visa system. So far this has had few substantive results, but involvement of more businesses might change this.
  • Business leaders should pay close attention to the individual stories of delay and travails experienced by partners, associates and friends from abroad, in order to ascertain how and in what context problems most often occur.
  • Especially in cases of potential investors entering the UK, all concerned should unashamedly voice concern, not just to the government, but publicly, where unnecessary hurdles are encountered.

As mentioned, migration must not be used as a means of driving down wages, or as an excuse not to ensure the creation of a skilled and educated national population, lest a Pandora’s box of socio-political conflict and far-right retrenchment be opened. But to turn this logic on its head, and to avoid these very real responsibilities of the state by tightening immigration laws to their current extent, is nothing short of madness in an age of globalisation.

Dr Peter Kolarz is a sociologist with particular interests in globalization, political sociology, political economy and variations of capitalism and is Director of Research of the Francis Hutcheson Institute. He can be contacted by e-mail.

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