Chesterfield: If public consent for immigration is to be gained, conversations need to be extended to Sports Direct, too

Our 28th National Conversation visit was to Chesterfield, a town of about 100,000 people in Derbyshire. Here, as we always do, we held a meeting with local stakeholders, then later with a citizens’ panel. In both discussions, we heard lots about the impact of Brexit on jobs and the local economy, but the two groups held quite different views.

Our stakeholders described the contribution of migrant workers, bringing skills and filling job vacancies. Without them, many local businesses, as well as the NHS, would struggle. In Chesterfield, as in most of the UK, unemployment is at an historic low and we were told of employers difficulties in recruiting local people. However, the citizens’ panel had very different views about job vacancies:

“I actually think that people who haven’t got a job should be paid to do the jobs like fruit picking and you know hotel work, not just given money that they can’t exist on. Being given a proper wage for it, because if you’re self-sufficient, it gives you a sense of pride you know. The kids we are bringing up today think the world owes them a living.”

Chesterfield lies on the Derbyshire coalfield and until the 1980s, the mines provided many jobs. But in the last 40 years, the town’s economy has seen many changes, with the closure of the pits and many large factories.  Royal Mail is now the biggest employer in Chesterfield and Sports Direct has its main base just outside the town at Shirebook. While unemployment was a significant problem in the 1980s and early 1990s, just 4.9% of the working-age population are now unemployed and looking for work in Chesterfield, a little above the GB average of 4.7%. An improving economy and unfilled jobs have brought migrant workers to the area, mostly from Poland, with some of this employment arranged by agencies.

As the National Conversation has progressed we have met many employers as well as groups representing their interests. We have listened to their frustrations about the bureaucracy that is required to bring in skilled workers from outside the EU with Tier 2 visas. We have also been told of labour shortages in sectors such as food processing and farming, as well as concerns about the economic viability of many businesses should the supply of labour from the EU be reduced after Brexit.  Employers views are backed up with reports and robust statistics.

Those who take part in our citizens’ panels also talk about skills, jobs, wages and working conditions. But we are usually told a different story, with participants sometimes feeling that employers offer jobs to migrant workers because it is easier than taking on and training those without jobs or school leavers. One of our Chesterfield participants said “it [migration] doesn’t encourage the government to do anything for our youngsters”. We have also heard people who feel that migration has depressed wages and damaged working conditions, with little or no regulation. A participant on our citizens’ panel in Chesterfield said:

“That’s the problem, though isn’t it? They [migrants] are prepared to work for low wages at Sports Direct.”

Although most participants acknowledge that the NHS would not run without its migrant staff, facts and figures about recruitment crises don’t convince most of those who attend National Conversation citizens’ panels. Participants are sceptical of ‘experts’ and are not convinced by lectures. For those who are struggling to make ends meet, being told by a London-based business leader that “immigration is good for the economy” may trigger the thought “it’s working better for you than me”.

There is a low level of trust in data which may have been made worse by the statistics used by both sides in the EU referendum campaign. Research also shows that people tend not to dwell on or believe statistics that run counter to their common sense or world view. In Chesterfield there is a strong memory of the 1980s recession when many people lost their jobs. Being told that employers cannot fill vacancies in Chesterfield does not chime with local views.

Leaving the EU is going to result in changes to the UK’s immigration system. What replaces freedom of movement has to work for businesses and public services. At the same time, the new system has to secure public consent – because public trust in the immigration system is so low. Meeting these two aims is going to be difficult where employers and the public have different views about immigration, as our Chesterfield visit indicated. It is going to require business to acknowledge the pressures of migration, as well as its gains, and to offer constructive solutions. It will also need employers to discuss with their staff and local communities about their future recruitment needs and how they might meet them. This already happens in some workplaces, more often those that are smaller, more civic-minded and less hierarchical. If public consent for immigration is to be gained, such conversations need to be extended to Sports Direct, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *