What Is the Real Impact of Migration from Eastern Europe to the UK? A Look at the Evidence

By Dan Jendrissek, an interdisciplinary PhD student in Social Sciences and Modern Languages at University of Southampton (@jendrissek). Dan is currently on the job market.

When Poland joined the European Union in May 2004, only the UK, Ireland and Sweden decided to open up their labour markets and chose not to impose major restrictions on members of the ‘new’ EU8 states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia). Nonetheless, EU8 citizens had to be registered on the Workers Registration Scheme and in continuous employment for 12 months before they could claim income-related benefits like jobseeker’s allowance or housing benefits. Migration from EU8 countries to the UK, from Poland in particular, turned into “one of the most important social and economic phenomena shaping the UK today” (Pollard, Latorre, Sriskandarajah 2008: 7) and is still heavily influencing the immigration debate. Most of the political commentators on the impact of migration from Eastern Europe, however, are stubbornly ignoring the existing evidence.

At the time Poland joined the EU in 2004, the country’s unemployment rate was 19%, compared to 5% in the UK (Eurostat 2014). Furthermore, a youth unemployment rate of 40% in Poland had made employment in the UK, even in low-skilled jobs, an attractive option for young Poles. Given these numbers it is hardly surprising that migration from Eastern Europe to the UK inclined significantly after EU accession.

While in 2001 58,000 Polish citizens were living in England and Wales, this number rose to 558,000 in 2011 (Office for National Statistics 2001, 2013). Long-term international migration (LTIM) data shows that in-migration of EU8 nationals increased after 2004 and peaked in December 2007 (ONS 2014). Since then, numbers for EU8 in-migration have been declining and data from the Polish Labour Force Survey demonstrates that while degree level educated migrants tend to stay abroad, those with secondary and vocational level of education originating from rural areas are increasingly returning to Poland (Anacka & Fihel 2012).

Figure 1: Long-Term International Migration estimates by EU8 citizenship, June 2004 to December 2013 (ONS 2014)


Rolling year (YE = Year Ending, p = Year includes provisional estimates for 2013)


Labour as well as Conservatives have identified immigration from Eastern Europe as a problem. In last year’s immigration speech, Prime Minister David Cameron emphasised the role of post-2004 migration from Eastern Europe for current immigration policies by arguing that “when new countries join the European Union it is important to put in place transitional controls and it’s wrong that this didn’t happen with Poland and the other countries that joined the EU in 2004.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband’s position is not far off. In a speech at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in 2012 he claimed that his party had mishandled immigration from Eastern Europe and declared that “one of the areas where we had got things wrong and needed to change was immigration”; while there was “nothing wrong with anyone employing Polish builders”, there was a problem with “local talent” being “locked out of opportunity”. Mr Miliband has reiterated his position since: in a party political broadcast in 2013 he announced a crack-down on “low-skill migration” and called for “the maximum transitional controls for new countries coming in from Eastern Europe”.

In another IPPR speech the then shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant criticised UK retailer Next for using a recruitment agency that hired exclusively Polish workers for a warehouse in West Yorkshire. Mr Bryant said it was not illegal for agencies to target foreign workers, however, “when agencies bring such a large number of workers of a specific nationality at a time when there are one million young unemployed in Britain it is right to ask why that is happening.”

In the above statements a connection is made between ‘Polish builders’ and ‘local talent being locked out of opportunity’, between immigration and youth unemployment. At first glance it may seem that there is nothing wrong with asking these questions and these discursive chains may make sense to a wider audience. However, two things are noteworthy in this context: firstly, statements like the above are almost identical to those uttered by voices from the supposedly other end of the political spectrum, be it the infamous think tank MigrationWatch establishing a connection between immigration and youth unemployment or UKIP’s Nigel Farrage blaming “the huge increase in supply of unskilled labour” from abroad to negatively influence wages and housing.

Secondly, and more importantly, these statements are ignoring a growing body of evidence. In fact, the connectedness of (youth) unemployment and immigration is far from self-evident. A study by the Bank of England, for example, reviews international and UK research and concludes that there is no evidence that immigration influences wages or unemployment. On the contrary, the authors argue that immigration is likely to have reduced the natural rate of unemployment in the UK.

Other studies come to similar conclusions. Eldring & Schulten (2012) compare data from Germany, Norway, Switzerland and the UK. They point out that cases of wage-dumping and even exploitation of migrant workers do exist in some sectors, but that at the macroeconomic level the effects of migration on wages are marginal, something connected to the existence of a national minimum wage.

Finally, Dustmann & Frattini (2013) investigate the contributions of immigrants to the UK tax and welfare system. According to their research migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) have put more money into the system than they took out; between 2001 and 2011 EEA immigrants contributed 34% more to the fiscal system than they took out, equivalent to a net contribution of around 22 billion GBP. Furthermore, recent immigrants are 45% less likely to claim benefits or tax credits than the UK’s native population. This can be explained by the age structure of recent immigrants and their educational credentials – especially Polish migrants are comparably young and highly qualified.

Data from the British Labour Force Survey (LFS) shows that EU8 migrants are more highly educated than people born in the UK. In 2012, around one in four UK born citizens was degree level educated. The number of Polish born LFS participants with degree level qualification was 37%, while another 20% were holding other work related or professional qualifications. Despite these high educational credentials, the majority of Polish migrants in the UK are working in rather low-skilled jobs in the manufacturing and hospitality sector. This ‘social downgrading’ often leads to a variety of problems for the individual (Trevena 2011, 2013) and constitutes a waste of human capital on the macroeconomic level. A recent IPPR report shows that a fifth of workers with higher education qualifications are doing menial, unskilled jobs in the UK and LFS data indicates that this situation is even worse for migrants from Eastern Europe.

To sum up, there is a growing body of research on the impact of migration from Eastern Europe to the UK. The existing evidence suggests that overall intra-European migration has been beneficial for the UK. Over the last decade, migrants from Eastern Europe have paid more money into the system than they took out. On average, they are young and well-educated, yet, they are more likely to end up in low-skilled jobs than UK born citizens. Furthermore, migration from Eastern Europe to the UK has been in decline since 2007 and some studies suggest that it is, in fact, the ‘best and brightest’ that decide to stay while those with a low level of qualification are increasingly returning to their home country.

While it has become commonplace to establish a link between immigration, unemployment and falling wages in public political discourse, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that one does not cause the other. With less than a year to go until the next UK general election and immigration likely to be one of the hot issues, it is important to get the facts right and to put the immigration debate on an evidence base in order to tackle a rather ill-informed political blame game.

2 thoughts on “What Is the Real Impact of Migration from Eastern Europe to the UK? A Look at the Evidence

  1. Thanks for your comment & the link, Gary! I agree that census data is generally more accurate due to the sample size but when it comes to respondents’ qualifications I actually prefer the LFS, mainly because it asks two seperate questions: one simply asks for ‘highest qualification’, and there numbers on degree level education are very similar to UK born participants (around 24% for Q1-Q4 2012), but if asked for the ‘type of qualification gained outside of the UK’ in a seperate question numbers of EU8 LFS participants with ‘degree level qualification, or higher’ go up quite significantly.

    The 2011 census, on the other hand, asks ‘Which of these qualifications do you have?’ and tells participants ‘If you have qualifications gained outside the UK, tick the ‘Foreign Qualifications’ box and the nearest UK equivalents (if known)’, followed by a rather confusing list of qualifications, especially for someone not familiar with UK qualifications. For example, what is someone with a foreign teaching degree supposed to answer: ‘degree’, ‘professional qualification (for example teaching, nursing, accountancy)’ or ‘NVQ level 4-5’?

    Click to access final-recommended-questions-2011—qualifications.pdf

    So long story short, I think the LFS is more accurate in that respect and I’m pretty sure that in the 2011 census a lot of non-UK participants with university degrees are actually captured under ‘other qualifications’ as they might have ticked the ‘foreign qualification’ box but then gave up.

    I hope that makes things a bit clearer?

    Cheers, Dan

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