By Rita Trehan — The UK economy depends on EU workers. Talented, highly educated, mainly young people from across the EU have flocked to London. They work in finance, professional services and the tech sector. Their contribution is enormous. But outside London and the key UK cities, there is another, less inspiring story: workers from poor EU nations coming to the UK to do often backbreaking labour on farms and in factories for minimum wage. Ironically, it is probably these EU workers that the UK economy will miss the most in the short term.
But how ethical is it to pay the lowest wages possible to people to whom the UK minimum wage is up to five times the average salary in their home country? In these days of globalisation, are we in danger of undervaluing all our workers? Have we created a low-wage economy that is about to turn round and bite us?
The EU Referendum campaign highlighted the fact that many people think the EU has not been good for UK workers. Many in the north of England and Midlands believe that immigration has played its part in making life harder for working-class people. Free movement of people is a wonderful concept. But you can understand the argument that the key beneficiaries have not been the people of the UK and Europe but large corporations and global businesses based here.
As demonstrated by the Brexit vote, there is a widespread belief that many UK companies have learnt they can get away with paying pitifully low wages and still fill their vacancies with often overqualified EU citizens. This has reduced the number of jobs available across the board, and depressed pay to such an extent that the lowest paid UK worker now struggles to make ends meet.
But now we’re leaving the EU, how will we survive without these workers? We will survive. But to thrive many businesses will to make big changes. Operationally they’ll need to look outwards, away from Europe towards new emerging markets in territories such as Asia-Pac. Post-Brexit, the UK will need many more non-EU workers with the language skills and cultural backgrounds to contribute to business expansion outside Europe.
Over the coming years we’ll need to think creatively about how to deploy our human resources and use our capacity in a smarter and more cost-effective way. But above all, we’ll need to change our mindset and behaviours: stop taking it for granted that we can advertise in Europe for low-wage, low-skilled workers, and start truly investing in people in a way we’ve just never really done before.
Brexit is an opportunity. It’s a chance to transform our economy and build businesses that appeal to the next generation of workers; Millennials who value creativity and innovation more than salary benefits and a job for life. We are a nation of agile minds and cutting-edge thoughts, we have the ability to think big and act bigger. There is no reason why we can’t lift our vision find ways to innovate, and build stronger, fitter, more sustainable businesses and a society truly fit for the future.