There is no magic immigration tap to fix the worker shortage

Britain is finally admitting it wants foreign workers. It’s forgetting to ask a vital question: Do foreign workers want Britain?

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

The United Kingdom is in a logistical crisis. Meat and dairy sit unusually spaced out on supermarket shelves. Drivers form long queues at petrol stations. McDonald’s can’t sell milkshakes or Nando’s chicken. Toilet roll is next.

The country isn’t running out of money; it’s running out of people. The Road Haulage Association estimates the shortage at 100,000 lorry drivers. We need warehouse workers, too. Nurses and care workers. Hospitality staff. Seasonal retail workers. Fruit pickers. Abattoir workers. Bricklayers, scaffolders and carpenters. Shortages are concentrated in lower-paid work, where vacancies are up 20% since before the pandemic, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

There is a solution though – immigrants to the rescue! The government is expected to unveil on Sunday plans for 5,000 short-term work visas to bring in foreign lorry drivers. Britain is finally admitting it wants migrants. It’s forgetting to ask a vital question: Do migrants want Britain?

Set aside the mathematical absurdity of filling hundreds of thousands of jobs with 5,000 workers. The cabinet, loathe to give in on the identity politics that rile up its base and convinced market forces will bring Britons into this line of work, is grudgingly considering a “very strictly time-limited” easing of visa rules, No.10 briefed to the press. That’s simply not good enough.

What would make someone pick Britain today?

Supply chains issues are not unique to the UK as the global economy jolts out of the pandemic. Nor is Brexit their only cause – maybe not even their main cause. Hauliers have warned of a demographic cliff for a couple decades now. Wages are desperately low in this country, especially compared to runaway housing costs. The pandemic closed driving test centres. There’s only so much you can do to make spending days on end in a truck appealing, and every country I’ve ever lived in has struggled to convert the unemployed to new industries.

What set Britain apart was its appeal to immigrants: a democratic, wealthy and welcoming country with free movement, a flexible job market and a language that is the lingua franca of the world. Moving here was as easy as booking a ferry and showing up in a bar or a lorry park asking for work. Britain willingly gave up that competitive advantage in 2012 when it introduced the hostile environment and again in 2016 with the Brexit referendum.

If the driver shortage is truly global as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is keen to repeat – “45,000 to 65,000 in Germany, 124,000 in Poland” – what would make a skilled, in-demand professional pick the UK today? Would it be the low wages or the high cost of living? Endless queues at a newly reinforced border? One of the highest covid case rates in Europe? Maybe a “strictly limited short term” visa that does not allow them to live with their family or envisage a future? Or perhaps it’s the constant xenophobic rhetoric that will seal the deal.

Migrants are not a resource to be mined at will when the gauge is running low on your labour market. They’re people with full lives who respond to the conditions they’re offered. They want a home with their family, good pay, a welcoming community and something to aspire to. It’s the great lie of immigration politics that migrants are all desperate to improve their lot and countries do them a great favour letting them in. Political, economic and climate refugees are a minority – one to look after and prioritise, but not the only story of migration. Most people choose to move and they have options. Countries who need them must recruit them, and Britain is doing a terrible job of it.

When you speak to your nationalists, the rest of us are listening too

For the past decade the British government has demonstrated not only that it is hostile to immigrants but that its word cannot be trusted. The migrants you want and those you don’t all watch the same news. We can all see Windrush, spousal minimal income requirements and the Northern Ireland protocol. For every nationalist voter the government has won, a dual national has walked away. For every small boat turned back, it’s a planeload of highly skilled professionals that never took off.

Now we should be enticed by a handful of short-term visas magnanimously handed down? Please. That’s like thinking your ex will come back just because you’re ready now. Most days I wonder if I should stay, but I have a life here now. Brits are nicer than their government. Would I move here again if the choice were made today? With 100% certainty: no.

Migrants are people. I’m not making a stunningly original argument here, and it should have occurred to the British government – and frankly the British media. But after years of dehumanising people who cross the Channel or the Mediterranean, it follows that they would only see immigrants as a column in an Excel spreadsheet. Unfortunately for them, that is not how we see ourselves.

This isn’t an “I told you so” column; it’s a “wake the hell up” column. Exceptionalism puts blinkers on any country at the best of times. In Britain, it is now a thick blindfold.


Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.