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A new skills-based immigration system, with a preference for the highly-skilled, is central to UK policy debates in the Brexit context, arguably responding to majority public opinion on migration. Through qualitative fieldwork with British, Polish and Romanian citizens living in two local authorities in England, this paper shows what participants understand by 'low-skilled' and how there is broad support of those who 'contribute', but are 'controlled' at the same time. Migrants' narratives of downskilling also illustrate why the category of 'low-skilled' migration needs to be seen through a more critical lens in research and policymaking.

Keywords: migration policymaking, intra-EU migration, low-skilled, downskilling, Brexit.

J EL codes: F22;J08.

A new skills-based immigration system

Following the Brexit vote in 2016, 'ending freedom of movement once and for all' has been repeated by many politicians, including the current Home Secretary, who claims this outcome is delivering on the result of the referendum (see Home Office and UK Visas and Immigration, 2019). Therefore, all citizens, with the exception of British and Irish passport holders, will need permission to reside in the UK in the near future. British citizens will need similar permissions to stay in other EU states. So far, EU citizens have been exercising their freedom of movement under Directive 2004/38/ EC. Some conditions have always been attached to this 'freedom': after a three-month 'unrestricted' period where holding valid identification is sufficient to exercise treaty rights, EU migrants have to fit within four main categories, namely student, self-sufficient, self-employed or employed (see European Parliament and Council of the European Union, 2004). However, unlike other EU states, the UK did not operate a registration system for all non-UK EU nationals, although some were registered through schemes such as the Workers' Registration, operating for A8 citizens between 2004 and 2011. Even though freedom of movement has been paramount to the EU since the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, opposition to it only began to be regularly expressed in UK media and political discourse in the context of the 2004 accession (see Portes, 2016, p. 14). These concerns have intensified in public discourse immediately before transitional work restrictions ended for Romanians and Bulgarians in 2014.

In addition to an application system for EU migrants already living in the UK (the EU Settlement Scheme), the UK Government plans to implement a new skills-based immigration system for those arriving after Brexit, detailed in the recent White Paper (HM Government, 2018). This is designed to prioritise 'the brightest and the best' migrants, with shorter-term schemes for those falling into the low-skilled category. One of the most controversial suggestions from the latest Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report on EEA migration, which informs the subsequently published White Paper, was a 30,000 salary threshold to qualify a migrant as highly skilled. The threshold is currently under consultation, while various key stakeholders, such as the Confederation of British Industry, have raised concerns regarding the ability to fill low-skilled jobs after Brexit and gave evidence against this specific threshold (CBI, 2019).

Immediately after the 2016 Brexit result, the two important questions on migration according to Portes (2016) were: 'Will the UK preserve a substantial measure of preference for EU citizens in any new system? And will policy tilt in a liberal or restrictive direction?' Almost three years since the referendum, it seems that the policy will be more restrictive in some areas and will be based on 'skills and talent', rather than country or region of origin. In these circumstances, the proposed 30,000 salary threshold for highly-skilled migration has created a lively debate amongst academics, journalists, politicians and other commentators, attracting some strong negative criticism across the political spectrum (see, for example, Campbell, 2019; Gabbatiss, 2019). However, with a few exceptions such as the National Conversation on Immigration (Rutter and Carter, 2018), there is very little systematic qualitative research on what the public understand by low-skilled migration and how they would design migration policy. Furthermore, one of the groups most affected by changes in migration policy after Brexit, EU migrants, are almost absent from debates on this topic. Thus, this paper is a constructive attempt to engage both British and migrant voices in offering a qualitative, more nuanced insight into public opinion on migration policy at a crucial time in decision making.

The problematic highly- vs low-skilled binary

Low-skilled in theory: definitions and criticism

What differentiates between low- and highly-skilled migrants? Usually, the traditional definitions are primarily concerned with migrants' level of education, income, sector of work or a combination of the three. The MAC's 30,000 threshold proposal has been criticised mainly because it appeared to equate skills purely with annual earnings. The report did justify this choice, claiming that 'the average level of household income at which taxes exceed benefits is estimated to be about 30,000' (MAC, 2018, p. 3), thus arguing that a higher-skilled migrant population would have an even more positive impact on the UK than at present. Commentators promptly responded that many valued migrant workers, including in highly-skilled sectors such as health and education, do not earn above the suggested threshold. The report does indeed discuss exemptions yet maintains that the "salary threshold at 30,000 should be retained even though we recommend expanding the list of eligible occupations". One of the MAC's recommendations accepted in the White Paper was not having "an explicit work migration route for low-skilled workers with the possible exception of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme" (ibid., p. 5). At the same time, academic studies examining how more restrictive policy choices impacted employers hiring non-EEA migrants have already shown the variety of burdens businesses face and concluded that developing local talent, a plan often championed by politicians, only represents a partial solution to solving labour shortages (e.g. Green and Hogarth, 2017).

Even though salary thresholds are employed across various systems, the meaning of skill in policy discourse has broadened over time (Payne, 2000). This is reflected for instance in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) skills strategies which shifted from traditional measures (e.g. formal education) to a more comprehensive perspective (OECD, 2012). The MAC's 2014 report on low-skilled migrant workers covers the various ways to categorise skill, reviewing limitations for different approaches. For instance, using education as the only indicator overlooks highly skilled jobs which do not require higher education; comparably, defining skill by earnings does not recognise low-paid jobs which require highly specialised training. Moreover, segmented labour markets, job stability and opportunity of progression have to be considered (ibid., p. 296). After reviewing various ways to categorise skill, the report employs a classification that considers the number of years spent in education, but also work experience. Therefore, low-skilled encompasses occupations such as secretaries and customer service operatives, whereas skilled workers include "electricians, bricklayers and tailors [...] even though many of these attract relatively low wages and require few formal qualifications" (ibid., p. 21-24).

Every definition of low-skilled migrants comes with certain limitations. In this sense, some researchers are critical of the mere exercise of placing migrant workers into low- or highly-skilled tick boxes. For instance, Paul's (2018) recent chapter summarises some of those criticisms, arguing that the category of low-skilled is deliberately constructed through regulatory choices. In her view, policies designed to limit low-skilled migration are underpinned by "inevitably selective claims" such as "we do not need lower-skilled workers" that eventually "acquire the status of tacit knowledge beyond contestation" (ibid., p. 66). Comparing how regulation in Britain, France and Germany privileges highly-skilled workers with more secure residence statuses, Paul argues that the policy discourse frames low-skilled migrants as undesirable, in spite of the need of migrants to fill in labour gaps. The normalisation of low-skilled as undesirable as a form of 'factual knowledge' makes it difficult to challenge some policy choices (ibid., p. 66).

Low-skilled in practice: the migrant perspective

Migrants' experiences give empirical evidence to the critical discussion at definitional and theoretical level. An expanding body of research on various groups of EU migrants illustrates the common experience of working below one's qualifications, while simultaneously emphasising social mobility and the need for low-skilled workers in an increasingly flexible labour market. The MAC also underlines how in low-skilled occupations, it is migrants' "soft skills", such as "reliability, teamworking and confidence"(MAC, 2014, p. 3), alongside their flexible working patterns (Rolfe, 2017), that often make migrants stronger applicants than natives. Migrant workers also tend to portray themselves as more reliable workers. For instance, the Polish builders in Datta and Brickell's study (2009) referenced their work ethic amongst other such soft skills, considering themselves "superior to English builders".

Aside from the softer skills, the MAC notes that often British people applying for low-skilled jobs lack "basic numeracy and literacy skills", while non-British applicants are usually found to be higher qualified than what is required for the work (MAC, 2014, p. 280). In the case of EU migration, it is Eastern Europeans, rather than their western counterparts, who tend to occupy the lower-skilled jobs in the UK, following a similar pattern observed in other countries (see Felbo-Kolding et al., 2018). Quantitative analyses based on large-scale survey data also show how Eastern Europeans tend to be more qualified for the jobs they do (Johnston et al., 2014). This can lead to assumptions that certain nationalities of migrants are particularly suitable for specific work, according to Vasey's (2017) interpretation, based on interviews with A8 migrants in low-skilled jobs.

Studies such as Vasey (2017) are part of a complementary qualitative literature, adding nuance to the larger-scale analyses, through studies with EU migrant participants. Research on EU migration from a qualitative perspective has expanded after 2004 and predominantly focussed on Polish workers as the largest migrant group, documenting the experiences of young graduates working below their qualifications. By way of illustration, Anderson's (2017) survey and interview-based study of highly-educated Polish migrants in the UK illustrates this practice. The Polish migration literature reviewed by White (2016, p. 16) confirms the focus on higher educated migrants rather than those "engaged in agriculture, domestic work or construction", who have been "somewhat neglected in UK scholarly literature". Immediately after 2004, White argues, research was broadly policy focussed and found these relatively well-educated Polish migrants to be "vulnerable workers, prone to social exclusion" (ibid., p. 12). Similar dominant themes are mirrored in research with Romanian migrants, who are often portrayed as the most vulnerable workers in low-skilled occupations from newer EU countries (Boboc et al. 2012).

Given these main themes, the concept of freedom of movement has started to be questioned in literature. Are migrants from the newer member states "successful EU citizens" or are they, in fact, "disadvantaged labour migrants"? (Ciupijus, 2011) While earlier research tended more towards the latter description, more recent studies explained the agency of migrants in low-skilled work. Such research has shown how migrants use lower-skilled work to fulfil other career and life goals, thus becoming active agents, not passive victims. For example, Parutis (2011) illustrates how Polish and Lithuanian migrants in London are mobile in the labour market, transitioning from "any job" to a "better job" and eventually fulfilling their "dream job" aspiration. Some participants accept downskilling because of economic incentives (e.g. saving money for an eventual return to the country of birth) or the possibility to develop transferable skills to be used in the future. A period of low-skilled work is often necessary to adapt skills gained in another EU country to the UK context. Nowicka, through a study of Polish migrants in routine or semi-routine occupations, argues that context matters in validating migrants' skillsets. Competences acquired in Poland need to be attributed new value in the UK. The process of validating these "migrating skills" calls for the need to revise the concept of skilled migration as a social category, in Nowicka's (2014, p.9) argument. Moreover, possessing these mobile skills can also be used by migrants as a form of resisting precarious conditions at work. In Alberti's (2014) study, "transnational exit power" is utilised to quit unsatisfactory low-skilled jobs. Research also shows how sometimes migrants distance themselves entirely from doing work below their qualifications, such as some of the unemployed Polish participants in Kozlowska's thesis (2010). All these qualitative insights based on migrant narratives indicate that the high vs low-skilled migration binary should be approached more critically. Both in theory and in practice, there are various challenges in attempting to place migrants neatly in one skill category or another; hence Parutis (2011) refers to the downskilled Polish and Lithuanian participants as "middling transnationals".

A Brexit paradox?

Regardless of how EU migrants are categorised by skill, research agrees that they represent a crucial component of the workforce in the UK. Following the referendum, a potential 'Brexodus' impacting sectors such as health and education has been discussed in media and politics. Studies such as Dolton et al. (2018, p.5) showed how waiting times tend to increase in NHS trusts which are losing European workers, especially nurses. This happens in a context of sharp decline in EU nurses' registrations following the Brexit vote (see McKee, 2018). Equally, employers are concerned about the impact of Brexit on the lower-skilled workforce. EU migrants are overrepresented in lower-skilled employment, with about 21 per cent in elementary occupations, significantly more than the 10 per cent of UK-born workers (Rienzo, 2018). The expected lower supply of EU workers after Brexit has been raised as an immediate concern by employers in the Brexit context (e.g. Rolfe, 2017).

Given the high share of EU migrant labour and the need to fill skill shortages, why is there a political appetite to have a much more restrictive policy, in particular for the low-skilled? Public opinion on migration and the subsequent response of decision-makers to public concerns constitutes a potential explanatory avenue. When asked about the level of immigration, a large majority of the UK public consistently wanted it reduced. However, since the Brexit vote, attitudes towards migration have softened, although a substantial majority still want immigration limited (Blinder and Richards, 2018). Decision-makers are not only faced with a majority who want immigration curbed. Large-scale quantitative analyses also show a strong preference for highly over low-skilled migrants (e.g. Helbling and Kriesi, 2014). Question wording influences how low-skilled migrants are perceived--when respondents are asked specifically about the jobs migrants do, for example attitudes towards fruit pickers, rather than framing fruit pickers as low-skilled in generic terms, the public are more likely to have positive attitudes (Rolfe et al., 2018; Rutter and Carter, 2018). Moreover, recent polls suggest the public tends to support migration as long as migrants are 'contributors'. For instance, a majority agreed with the statement, "People from the EU should be free to come to Britain as long as they have a job to come to, or have a place at a British university" (YouGov, 2018).

In the context of public opinion towards migration, "ethnic hierarchies" (Ford, 2011) are also discussed. There is a preference for "culturally close countries" over those perceived as more "culturally distant". Of the EU countries, Romania stands out as an exception to this trend. As Blinder and Richards (2018) note, "opposition to immigration from Romania is at similar levels to opposition to immigration from Pakistan"; this is often explained by the conflation between 'Roma' and 'Romanian', especially seen in the tabloid press (see Vicol and Allen, 2014). However, there tends to be agreement that migrants' skills matter more than their country or origin, hence a skills-based migration system without preferential access for Europeans fits this public opinion narrative. What is perhaps less explored in research is the intersection between country of origin and perception of skill level in shaping attitudes towards migration. Moreover, the meaning people attribute to low-skilled migrants is often overlooked. Studies have already shown how the connotations attached to the word 'immigrant' shape respondents' attitudes towards immigration (Blinder, 2013). Could one speak about an imagined 'EU low-skilled migrant' category that the public are opposed to? Or are public understandings closer to established policy definitions of skill categories?

With a majority supporting reducing immigration and a strong preference for highly-skilled migrants, the recent proposals for a post-Brexit immigration system seem to respond to public opinion to a greater extent than employers' expressed concerns. There is a lack of research on what the public understands by these skill categories and limited evidence available on migrants' own attitudes towards policies affecting them (Rolfe et al. 2018, p. 27-29). Existing qualitative literature on EU migrants' experiences in the UK job market already challenges often rigid migrant categories employed in policy debates. However, in the current context of Brexit and the MAC recommendations informing the future migration policy, there is limited constructive conversation combining both migrant and non-migrant voices in offering insight into how skill categories are understood by ordinary citizens at the local level. This paper aims to contribute to that discussion.


This article draws on qualitative data collected as part of the author's doctoral research on attitudes towards EU migrants. The semi-structured interviews asked participants about a range of topics, including their views and experiences with migration, local politics and the EU referendum campaign. This paper focuses on unpacking the nuances behind how participants speak about low-skilled migration in the context of their views on migration policy. Two questions from the broader topic guide are analysed in detail for this paper: "If you were in charge of migration policies after Brexit, how would they look like?" and the follow-up question, "What does low-skilled mean for you?" Participants also reacted to a range of stimulus material during these interviews, including EU referendum campaign material containing text about immigration and a selection of newspaper headlines, with one mentioning low-skilled EU workers.

The interviews took place in two local authority areas, Tendring and the London Borough of Newham. Newham is a case study of a multicultural space in London, a strong Labour area, which (narrowly) voted to Remain. In contrast, Tendring is overwhelmingly white British, is Conservative and voted to Leave. Polish and Romanian migrants represent the largest EU national populations in both areas. The research used a purposive participant sample and this paper is based on 63 recorded interviews (39 British, 15 Romanian, 9 Polish) following the same topic guide. The EU migrants in the sample have been living in the UK from as little as four months to over ten years, with the majority living in the UK longer term. The research is also informed by notes from unrecorded interviews with two local MPs, ten councillors and other key informants who work on immigration issues locally.

While most recent qualitative reports on attitudes towards immigration use focus groups with British citizens, this sample is innovative in bringing together both migrant and non-migrant voices in two local authority areas, triangulating findings in understanding concepts such as that of 'low-skilled' explored in this paper. The sample captured a variety of views on immigration, Brexit, various political party support (and none), a wide range of age (23-80), a diversity of educational qualifications and crucially, different levels of experience with other nationalities at the local level. The fieldwork took place between December 2017 and December 2018, with the majority of interviews conducted in the summer of 2018. All interviews were conducted in English, with the exception of 14 Romanian participants who chose to speak in Romanian, the author's native language. All Polish participants had a good level of English, as did the majority of Romanian participants, with the exception of two more recent arrivals. The transcribed interviews were analysed thematically.

Findings and discussion

At the core of the discussion on EU migration policy was the idea of 'contribution'. Some participants regarded contribution purely in economic terms, whereas others adopted a broader interpretation. Participants generally welcomed low-skilled migrant workers. Many related to personal experience when illustrating how low-skilled migration contributes to the British economy, whereas others explained why the term 'low-skilled migrant' does not reflect reality or, at worst, is offensive to migrant communities. Through personal examples, participants' accounts show how drawing a line between highly and low-skilled is challenging. The intersection between nationality or region of origin and skill level is also relevant. It is Eastern Europeans who are generally imagined as the low-skilled, often 'undesirable' migrants. However, despite being critical of the low-skilled label and broadly supporting migrants who contribute, the theme of control prevails in discussions of migration policy. Amongst participants whose preference was a points-based system and those who thought there should be a registration scheme for all EU workers in the UK, very few actually supported a more liberal policy (such as extending freedom of movement to all migrants) than it currently applies. Participants concurred that a system encouraging contribution needed a level of control. The next sections address these themes in detail.

A system for those who 'contribute'

"How should migration policy look like after Brexit?" From those advocating for an Australian style points-based system to those keen on open borders, the idea of migrant contribution was present across the sample. The similarities of migrants' views to those of British-born participants could be explained by the fact that most EU migrants in this sample have been living in the UK long term. Research shows that over time migrants' attitudes towards immigration become closer to those of the native population, likely more opposed to further immigration (cf. Braakmann et al., 2017). Participants who were supportive of freedom of movement promptly mentioned that migrants contribute to the economy, giving examples of friends, relatives or colleagues working in various sectors in the UK, with EU doctors and nurses being one of the most popular ones. Comparatively, those favouring ending freedom of movement argued that the current system allows too many migrants who do not contribute and changing the system would allow entry only for those deserving, contributing migrants. Investment at the local level was frequently mentioned, especially by those living in more deprived neighbourhoods who pointed out the decrease of investment in local communities coupled with a spike in migration over recent years.

Participants did not appear aware or concerned about the level of earnings needed to become a net contributor, which is used as a justification for various income thresholds. For the vast majority, both highly and low-skilled workers were taxpayers and that was satisfactory to categorise them as desirable contributors. These findings are similar to Rutter and Carter's citizens' panels, where "economic contribution was seen through a 'common sense' fiscal lens" (Rutter and Carter, 2018, p. 4).

Nevertheless, not all participants saw contribution only as fiscal or filling in 'jobs that need doing'. Several criticised the narrow economic definition of migrant contribution, opting for a more holistic perspective. Through anecdotal examples of migrants who are students or work in creative industries, the impact of migration on knowledge creation was highlighted. Other participants questioned why different standards of contribution are sometimes expected from migrants and not British people. Volunteering, caring for the elderly or children and other community activities were seen as important contributions which are often ignored. Moreover, a number of participants spoke about how migrants positively contribute to a diverse UK culture, like one British Remain voter in Tendring, who narrated how her mother's views on Polish people changed after some local Polish workers brought her traditional food at home.

'Contributing' low-skilled migrants

The understanding of positive contributions transcends skill categorisations. Asking directly about what does 'low-skilled migrants' mean for participants, the majority had positive attitudes, particularly when related to personal experiences of employing, working with migrants or having migrant acquaintances in the local area and beyond. An emerging theme in these conversations was the intersection between migrants' country or region of origin and their perceived corresponding skills. Limited English language skills, appearance, a stronger accent and social class were mentioned by several participants as markers of being a low-skilled migrant. Several British interviewees drew attention to how 'Eastern European' almost becomes a euphemism for 'low-skilled' in local narratives. This was echoed by migrant participants who personally experienced this association, often after disclosing their nationality to British people.

While some participants mentioned Eastern Europeans when asked about low-skilled migrants, others critically pointed out how this presumption would not be made about other nationalities working in lower-skilled occupations. Both migrant and British participants generally pointed to the association between Eastern European and low-skilled. Nevertheless, the stereotypical 'Romanian housekeeper' and 'Polish labourer' images are not entirely remote from reality, as studies show high numbers of EU migrants in these occupations (Rienzo, 2018). A Romanian migrant from Newham remembered how some British people were surprised that she is simultaneously Romanian and a lawyer:
   I would say that there is still very much the impression
   around that we only do low-skilled jobs, that we don't
   speak any English [...], that we steal and we cause
   trouble and we drink [...] you can't get away from
   that, but equally [...] you can't have migration from
   a country and just be full of doctors and lawyers, that
   doesn't happen.

In this case and others, 'low-skill' is associated with some antisocial behaviours which are precisely what creates opposition to immigration in this respondent's view, rather than the type of job someone has.

Moreover, a number of participants openly opposed the use of the 'low-skilled migrant' category. A British Remain supporter in Tendring expressed frustration that "the focus is always on allowing people with high education and qualifications and keeping out the people with low skills". Through giving various examples of his contacts in farming, he concluded that low-skilled workers "are actually the people that are supporting Britain the most". A Polish business operations manager in Tendring referred to the category 'low-skilled' as insulting. Arriving in the UK a decade ago, she first worked as a waitress and then many other low-skilled jobs until she became a senior manager:
   I've got a couple of cleaners, they are on their second
   year of university, engineering or doctors [...] they
   go for the jobs which, in their opinion, are quite easy
   and don't require their English to be on a higher level,
   because they are prepared to come here, work seven
   days a week for six weeks or eight weeks to save up
   as much as they can for university fees.

This respondent gave numerous examples of her staff illustrating how, even with a high level of education, migrants can strategically choose low-skilled work as a means to pursue other goals. A related common observation from participants is that a rigid category of low-skilled fails to consider migrants' career progression and potential.

The research evidence suggests that the attitudes and experiences of interviewees in the lower-skilled sector themselves or managing people with low-skilled jobs are not supportive of the recent White Paper's 12-months "time-limited route for temporary short-term workers" designed to "prevent people effectively working in the UK permanently" (HM Government, 2018).

'Downskilled' low-skilled migrants

Migrants' narratives illustrate an initial 'downskilling', followed by what one participant describes as 'upskilling', or the move from 'any job' to a 'better job', as Parutis (2011) put it. Almost all Romanian and Polish migrants interviewed currently worked or had previously worked in jobs they considered below their qualifications. The few who immediately secured jobs in their field were those who had UK degrees with clearer career paths, such as law and accountancy. But even those graduates worked part-time jobs during their studies and empathised with being categorised as a low-skilled migrant at some point in their lives. The majority of migrant participants described initially having to accept lower-skilled jobs below their qualifications due to limited language skills, while others recounted the difficulty in finding a highly skilled job in the UK, despite their good language skills and experience in the country of birth. Some have since managed to move to a 'better job', while others, like one Romanian in Newham, despite their postgraduate qualifications and "office experience", were still "unloading trucks most of the time".

Several British participants, often struggling with the cost of living themselves, empathised with migrants' downskilling experiences and their transitions in the job market. For example, a young British graduate in Tendring immediately related to his personal situation, working in hospitality and farming while paying for his education: "Just 'cos people choose to work in a bar or work in a restaurant, that doesn't mean they're a low-skilled person". He then referred to his personal experiences with migrants to challenge skill categorisations:
   One guy I knew, fluent English, fluent Romanian and
   good Turkish, he came from a village in the middle of
   nowhere. You can say he's low-skilled, he just works
   as a cook. But he's trilingual and really kind and really
   intelligent, so is he low-skilled, just because he's doing
   a low-skilled job? No.

Comparable to migrant participants, British respondents often saw working in low-skilled sectors as a necessary step before training and eventually moving to a better job. Another British respondent summarised this view after describing those he employed: "the people with high skills started with the low skills and unless you give people with low skills a chance, you're never gonna have a high skill".

'Controlled* low-skilled migrants

In both migrant and non-migrant accounts, the conversation about low-skilled EU workers was almost always built with reference to British workers and within a framework of control. While participants tended to agree that employed low-skilled migrants should be welcomed in principle, there was more disagreement on whether the number of migrants overall should be reduced. Some Leave supporters argued that "unemployed British people" should fill the low-skilled positions currently occupied by migrants: "you're bringing in EU migrants to do a job that you've already got a Briton to do, but they just don't wanna do it". The reluctance of British people to work in some low-skilled jobs, also noted in recent research (Rolfe et al., 2018, p. 38), was a common theme in both migrant and British interviewees' accounts. To justify why British people don't want to do these jobs, some mentioned work conditions, where they believe migrants are unfairly advantaged. Particularly in Tendring, several believed migrants are given subsidised accommodation and food. Therefore, in their view, migrants can afford to accept lower wages, unlike British people who, under those circumstances, would 'prefer to be unemployed'. Even when voicing rather negative views on the perceived advantages migrants have in low-skilled work, participants tend to blame the government, rather than the migrant workers. Nevertheless, more participants simply explained why the jobs are not filled by natives using a 'lazy Brit' stereotype. Some drew attention to how acquaintances "moaning about migrants stealing jobs" did not apply for any of these jobs. These interviews contain descriptions of neighbours, family or friends who prefer not to work because they are lazy. Migrants, especially those with direct experience in the lower-skilled sectors, shared similar views.

While participants recognised the need for migrant labour across sectors and pointed at the reluctance of British people to work in certain occupations, an overarching theme is present in the vast majority of participant accounts, namely the need for more control of EU migration. With a few exceptions who support open borders, the majority spoke about the need to reform various aspects of migration policy concerning EU citizens. When Remain supporters mentioned it, more control was usually about knowing who is in the country, for instance by creating a registration system for all EU migrants or applying the Citizens' Rights Directive provisions. For those advocating Brexit, control meant reducing net migration, based on the perception that there's just too many migrants overall, often coupled with an overestimation of migrant figures and mistrust in EU migrant number estimates. In contrast, Remainers tended either to underestimate the number of EU migrants or show more trust in the current estimates. Furthermore, location shapes participants' descriptions of control. Some in Newham acknowledged that they may be exaggerating the impact of migration, given that white British people are a minority in their neighbourhoods. Comparatively, in Tendring, participants agreed there is little EU migration in their area, but sometimes arguments for controlling it were made in relation to proximate towns such as Colchester or London (several British participants in Tendring were former Londoners). The asymmetric perceived impact of migration at the local level made it challenging for some participants to decide what constitutes a sustainable national level migration policy.

The need for more immigration control was usually raised in the contexts of housing and healthcare. Although research shows that migrants are less likely to be in social housing compared to natives (e.g. Battiston et al., 2014), and that there is no evidence that social housing allocation favours migrants (Rutter and Latorre, 2009) some (usually Leave supporting) participants' narratives made frequent references to news stories, TV programmes or other people's experiences, showing the opposite, in their interpretation. A minority remarked on direct personal experiences, such as one British participant in Tendring, previously homeless in London, mentioning how a Polish friend was prioritised for housing support. Another British Leave supporter in Tendring argued that "the government had made me prejudiced", believing migrants are automatically given housing on arrival, while she has to live in the same room with her family. While the positionality of the researcher as someone with a migrant background may have influenced how participants ascribe responsibility for various social problems, other recent reports also show how blame tends to be shifted from migrants to others, such as rogue landlords or various government policies (e.g. Rutter and Carter, 2018 p. 109).


Although becoming more positive after the 2016 EU referendum, public opinion shows how the majority in the UK want to reduce the number of migrants and prefer highly over low-skilled migrants. Responding to Brexit and public concerns, a new skills-based immigration system would prioritise highly-skilled migrants. Policy reports recognise that defining skill categories is complex, while academic literature analysing migrants' experiences in the UK shows why placing migrants in neat skill categories is challenging. This paper contributes to the qualitative literature on attitudes towards EU migrants by adding some nuance on what ordinary citizens understand by low-skilled migration, including the overlooked migrants' own views on migration. The narratives of British, Romanian and Polish participants in Newham and Tendring show how low-skilled migrant workers, often directly associated with Eastern Europeans, are positively viewed, as long as they are contributing low-skilled migrants. Contribution is generally defined in economic terms, but sometimes it is seen more holistically. But these contributing low-skilled migrants are often working below their qualifications, which raises some concerns from participants. Romanian and Polish interviewees' personal stories illustrate how they became downskilled low-skilled migrants in the UK. They also suggest that if a 30,000 income threshold is strictly applied, the participants who are now in managerial or senior positions after years of low-skilled work would probably not have been allowed in the UK in the first place. However, interviewees also tend to agree that, although welcomed, low-skilled migrants should be controlled, and that government should work more to address the asymmetric impacts of migration at a local level.

Changes in migration policy are often presented as responses to public opinion and concerns. Both British and migrant voices in this study show there is no one-size-fits-all definition of low-skilled in public opinion. While some refer to specific types of jobs, others refuse to use the term, considering its negative connotations downplay the contribution of migrants. The way participants understand the concept of low-skilled would influence how they respond to public opinion surveys on these topics; further, larger-scale research is needed in this sense to test some hypotheses generated from qualitative insights. Finally, there is a broad agreement on the need for low-skilled migrants who contribute and a near absence of quantifying the levels of contribution expected from migrants, fiscal or otherwise. Thus, this paper challenges the highly vs low-skilled binary by offering a spectrum of understandings of low-skilled migration, contextualised in experiences at the local level. It adds to the ongoing conversation on what is a fair migration policy for both migrants and British people in the context of Brexit.


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Alexandra Bulat, School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), UCL. E-mail: This article draws on fieldwork conducted as part of the author's doctoral research project, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant number ES/J500185/1). The author thanks all interview participants, whose names have been changed for anonymity purposes. The author also thanks the two peer reviewers for their constructive comments.
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Author:Bulat, Alexandra
Publication:National Institute Economic Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2019

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