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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

UK now among most accepting countries for foreign workers, survey finds

Job advert in a pub window
There are 1.1m vacancies in the UK, 300,000 more than before the pandemic. Photograph: Maureen McLean/Rex/Shutterstock

The UK has become one of the world’s most accepting places for foreign workers, according to a survey in 24 nations revealing a sharp increase in British acceptance of economic migration.

People in the UK emerged as less likely to think that when jobs are scarce employers should give priority to people of their own country than those in Norway, Canada, France, Spain, the US, Australia and Japan. Only Germany and Sweden were more open on that question.

In what the study’s authors described as “an extraordinary shift”, only 29% of people in the UK in 2022 said priority over jobs should go to local people, compared with 65% when the same question was asked in 2009.

The findings come as employers call for more migration to help fill more than 1m vacancies, and after the prime minister appointed the anti-immigration firebrand Lee Anderson as deputy chair of the Conservative party. He has called people arriving in small boats on the south coast “criminals” and called for them to be “sent back the same day”. Police have been deployed to hotels where asylum seekers are being housed amid violent protests by anti-immigration activists.

“It was unthinkable a decade ago that the UK would top any international league table for positive views of immigration,” said Prof Bobby Duffy, the director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, who shared the findings from the latest round of the survey exclusively with the Guardian and the BBC. “But that’s where we are now, with the UK the least likely, from a wide range of countries, to say we should place strict limits on immigration or prohibit it entirely.”

The UK ranked fourth out of 24 nations for the belief that immigrants have a very or quite good impact on the development of the country – ahead of Norway, Spain, the US and Sweden.

One factor in the shift in opinions on the question of “British jobs for British workers” may be that in 2009 the UK was in a deep recession, with more than double today’s unemployment, whereas today the economy suffers from a worker shortage, with 1.1m vacancies in the UK, 300,000 more than before the pandemic.

Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, last year urged employers to look to the British workforce in the first instance and “get local people”, although the government has widened visa programmes for seasonal workers and care staff.

Duffy said the findings showed that “it’s time to listen more carefully to public attitudes”. He said: “Politicians often misread public opinion on immigration. In the 2000s, Labour government rhetoric and policy on this issue was more relaxed than public preferences, and arguably they paid the price – but the current government is falling into the reverse trap.”

People in the UK are now the least likely of the 24 countries that participate in the World Values Survey study to think immigration increases unemployment, and second from top in thinking that immigrants fill important job vacancies.

They are very likely to say immigration boosts cultural diversity, and very unlikely to think immigration comes with crime and safety risks. However, more people in the UK think immigration leads to “social conflict” than in several other countries, including Canada, Japan and China.

The World Values Survey asks the same questions in countries that account for almost half the world’s population. The surveys in each country are not carried out simultaneously, so the latest UK findings are compared with data from other countries gathered since 2017.

“We have seen a shift that is quite remarkable in the UK,” said Madeleine Sumption, the director of the migration observatory at Oxford University, adding that the findings were in line with decreasing public concern about immigration since the 2016 EU referendum.

“There is speculation it is about the fact that the end of freedom of movement has created a feeling the UK now has more control,” she said.

She added that there had also been positive media coverage about what migrant workers bring to the economy, especially given worker shortages in industries such as agriculture.

“I think it potentially creates space for a less polarised debate about immigration,” she said. “To the extent there is a consensus that immigration can be positive for the country and the question was how to manage it well, you can imagine that would be more a technocratic debate.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our points-based immigration system recognises the valuable contribution that people from around the world can make to our economy, public services and wider society. It attracts the best and brightest talent from across the globe by putting skill and talent first – not where someone comes from.”

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