Fake News

Are you earning less than a ‘low-paid’ EU migrant?

by Luke Lythgoe | 18.08.2017

Here’s a good example of how misleading statistics can find their way into an otherwise objective piece of journalism. In a recent BBC News article headlined “UK looks to keep visa-free travel from EU”, a quote from Migration Watch chairman Andrew Green read:

“The point is that a work permit system for EU workers would lead, in due course, to a massive decrease in net migration from the EU as low-paid workers (who comprise some 80% of the inflow) are squeezed out.”

Is that statistic true? Are 80% of EU immigrants to the UK taking up low-paid jobs? Well, it depends on your definition of low paid.

Migration Watch sets a fairly high threshold – an annual salary of at least £30,000. The think- tank has used this 80% figure before to qualify the proportion of “low-skilled” EU migrants entering the UK. Green is using “low paid” interchangeably with “low skilled”, which is interpreted in this Migration Watch policy proposal as anyone not eligible for a Tier 2 (General) work visa. This is generally reserved for those earning £30,000 or more.

Brexiters have used similarly high thresholds to make arguments on migration before. For example, former Ukip MEP Steven Woolfe set the bar at £35,000 in a report for Leave Means Leave advocating a “five-year freeze on unskilled migration”.

To put this into context, recent workforce statistics showed the average weekly pay for UK employees was £506, or roughly £26,300 a year. Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London, has further picked apart the issues with Migration Watch’s definition of “low-skilled” jobs, i.e. “the type of jobs that the majority of Britons work in”.

That said, though many people may disagree, it is perfectly legitimate for Migration Watch to set the low-paid bar at £30,000. It is their research, and they can establish their own definitions and parameters.

Journalists, however, must challenge these figures rather than insert them uncritically into articles, even if they are using them within quotes or to balance two sides of an argument. Without context, such statistics risk perpetuating myths about EU migration. The figure of 80% could lead to the assumption that the overwhelming majority of EU migrants must be struggling to support themselves and their families. Or that they must be undercutting British workers at the bottom of the income ladder or need to rely on in-work welfare benefits. These are not points that Migration Watch makes directly with its figure. It merely argues that there is “very little evidence that migration for low-skilled work is of economic benefit”. But the referendum campaign revealed these prejudices to be all too prevalent.

The BBC has since amended its article, removing the statistic from Green’s quote and explaining Migration Watch’s definition of low paid. InFacts contacted the BBC for comment but at time of publication had received no response.

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    Edited by Alan Wheatley