UK restricts workers mobility for Bulgaria and Romania

How mistakes in calculation can lead to discrimination

, by Irina Ivanova

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

UK restricts workers mobility for Bulgaria and Romania

Imagine that you have invited home four guests for dinner. Imagine that instead of spending a quiet evening in friendly company, you end up with 150 people ready to party who have occupied every single corner of your house.

That’s the effect Britain’s open-door work policy has produced over the last two years. The UK, together with Ireland and Sweden, were the only three states allowing unrestricted rights to work to the citizens of the ten countries which joined the European Union (EU) in 2004.

The British Government expected between 5,000 and 13,000 migrant workers. This prediction proved to be a massive miscalculation, with surveys revealing that the number of immigrants from the newest EU members has now reached 600,000. This is nearly 40 times more than was originally estimated.

Bulgaria and Romania will pay the price for the Government’s miscalculation. Although the countries are to become fully-fledged members of the Union on January 1, 2007, they have been denied the same rights as the other members. A2 nationals, as Bulgarians and Romanians are also referred to, will be able to work only in the food-processing and agriculture sectors.

‘Workers from the new Member States have filled skills gaps, including in key public services such as the NHS and social care, and have contributed to UK growth and prosperity … Studies have found no evidence they have taken jobs away from British workers or undercut wages’ John Reid, the Home Secretary, said in his speech before the Commons.

These positive statements were followed by the announcement that Bulgarians and Romanians will be expected ‘to meet any low-skilled labour shortages within the UK’. If we remove the politically correct coating of John Reid’s words, the crude version should be something like ‘to do only what British citizens can’t be bothered to do’. Harsh as it may seem, that’s all the UK can offer to Bulgaria and Romania in the immediate future.

The Bulgarian minister of European Affairs Meglena Kuneva defined the British policy of ‘open doors’ in 2004 as “very brave and very right”, but she aired her disappointment with the position the UK government takes now. ‘It’s a little bit strange why this policy isn’t kept [for Bulgaria]", she said on BBC News 24. Mrs Kuneva expects that about 36,000 Bulgarian citizens would like to try to find a job in Britain. This is 10 times less than the number of Poles, who have come to the UK to earn their living since May, 2004.

Judging by the statistics, it becomes clear that it is not the figures that worry the British government. Maybe it is the high level of organised crime in Bulgaria and Romania that accounts for the Home Office’s sudden change of policy. There are concerns that certain criminal organizations will choose Britain to conduct their affairs. So far these fears haven’t been substantiated.

‘It’s a pity, but we are treated as second-rate quality people. The difference in the standard of living in Britain and Bulgaria is so big; it makes us feel really humble. That’s why we are satisfied with less,’ says Julien Shakpadjiev, 47. Mr Shapkadjiev arrived in London in 1999 in search of better opportunities after exhausting the business potential in his hometown in Bulgaria. He didn’t speak English at the time, so the first job he found was as a grave digger. Then he worked as a gardener, cleaner and dish washer.

‘The truth is that a worker from Eastern Europe, a Bulgarian as it is in my case, will agree to do a certain job for a 50% lower wage than an Englishman. It has been like that for ages. It has nothing to do with Eastern European migrants.’ Mr Shapkadjiev is not the only one to point out the evident truth.

In an interview for Sky News,

Simon Briault, of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), confirmed what the Government actually has not yet admitted, i.e. that workers from Eastern Europe have benefited Britain’s businesses

because they were willing to do jobs that many workers from the rest of Europe were not, and helped keep down inflation in the UK economy.

The government’s decision to restrict the access of A2 nationals to all job sectors gave rise to another serious misgiving; namely, the possibility of a flourishing black market. In a press release, the FSB expressed its concern ‘that the pressure that will now be put on businesses to monitor who is a legal worker from the two nations will be too much to bear.’

Mr Shapkadjiev came to Britain under the pretence that he would train for a bookmaker. He never did, but he has not spent a single minute as an illegal resident in the UK, either. ‘My employers helped me to extend my visa. They also got me the insurance number. What I’ve learned here is that if you do your job well, you won’t have legal problems.

What makes the situation worse is the fact that the limitations are imposed on the A2 states only. Other European countries, such as Germany and Spain, did introduce similar restrictions to curb the migration influx after the 2004 EU enlargement; it was expected that these will be in force for Bulgaria and Romania, as well. It is no surprise the, that the two Balkan countries interpreted the UK position as a discriminatory act.

In Britain, politicians and analysts saw Reid’s actions as an attempt to win voters. The Europe minister, Geoff Hoon, insisted that the Government keep its ‘open door’ policy. Labour MP Keith Vaz defined the decision as ‘xenophobic’.

The spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dimitar Tsanchev, has announced that his government will discuss the possibility of imposing reciprocal restrictions on Britain.

With January, 1 behind us and Bulgaria’s EU entry now already reality, many people are thinking about finding a job abroad, presumably a legal one. Limitations on working rights, such as those imposed by Britain, will only increase the number of the illegal workers and will cause unnecessary complications for the authorities. Mr Shapkadjiev neatly wraps it up: ‘In this case the restrictions will be more of a problem than a solution.’


* cropped image of a graffiti artists hacking a Tory bilboard, source: Flickr

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