The U.K.'s Shortages Are Vindicating Brexiteers—Not Remainers

Yes, the E.U.'s Freedom of Movement was suppressing local wages

In the U.K.’s run-up to the E.U. referendum back in 2016, a prominent Remainer warning was post-Brexit labour shortages. Musings as to who would serve the coffee or pick the fruit reflected a palpable anxiety that Britain was going to feel the economic pinch when it could no longer rely on E.U. migration courtesy of Freedom of Movement.

Fast forward to today’s Britain, and headlines scream about shortages. There are not enough truck drivers to make deliveries. We are watching the panic buy cycle set in. In places, petrol pumps are dry. Pictures of empty shelves fill social media.

The Remainers were in a sense correct. Across various sectors, there are frequent complaints of labour shortages. And although some of it can probably be explained by the pandemic, we are undoubtedly seeing parts of the prophecy that Remainers had so passionately espoused fulfilled. As the inflow of migrant workers dries up, an increasing number of businesses now lament a dearth of applicants, particularly within the hospitality sector, which has traditionally relied upon foreign labour. Shame on British exceptionalism for thinking it could run an economy without depending on the E.U.’s labour supply.

You could gather all of this information and conclude that the Remainers were vindicated, but this would be a hasty and intellectually shallow reading of events. Rather, the paucity of workers (such as truck drivers) in several sectors is the endorsement of those who argued for Brexit—from a left-wing standpoint at least—by insisting that Freedom of Movement was detrimental to local wages.

Brexit, in effect, presents an opportunity for a labour market with stronger workplace rights and fairer wages. Supermarket lorry drivers are now receiving substantially higher salaries in the wake of a mass shortage of 100,000 workers due to our E.U. exit. Indeed Waitrose is now paying around £53,000 annually to its drivers with another £1,000 joining bonus. And the recruitment firm Reed discovered an 18 percent rise in average wages across the year in catering and hospitality, and 10 percent in retail. Essentially, where there is a shortage of workers, the power shifts towards employees to negotiate for better conditions and pay, as employers become desperate for their services. 

Pre-Brexit, a massive labour market, particularly one not regulated by strong trade unions, simply served as a door to exploitation; employers could push wages down in the knowledge that there was a long line of people desperate to accept anything. This is no criticism of migrants themselves, who will ultimately seek the best jobs where they can, to try to create the greatest life possible for themselves and their families—which is natural human behaviour. Rather, it’s a reflection on how entire sectors were propped up on the shoulders of the underprivileged.

Today, even those who are the strongest cheerleaders for the anti-Brexit argument recognise this. The New European, a pro-E.U. British magazine that began after the referendum in 2016, recently published an article labelling Brexit the main driver behind the labour shortage. Within the article, however, was a recognition that “if you’re an employer looking for a steady stream of people to work for relatively low wages, high immigration and open borders—especially in countries with much lower average wages—are hugely in your interests.” Which is basically what many Brexit-voting people in working class jobs were saying for years, only to be dismissed as xenophobic.  

Brain Drain

It’s also important to highlight that it isn’t merely the British labour market suffering from unregulated levels of E.U. immigration. Central, Southern, and Eastern European countries have seen an exodus of skills and talent. In Romania for example, healthcare services declined drastically due to high levels of emigration across the last decade. The unrelenting flight of young talent for other countries in search of better pay left Romanian hospitals badly understaffed and ill-equipped. Since Romania joined the E.U., it’s believed that at least 43,000 doctors have left, leaving a service struggling to cope. Countries like Romania were effectively training and developing their workforce and then watching helplessly as larger markets poached them. One Romanian county was reported in 2019 to have 44 percent of all doctor positions sitting vacant.

This brain drain is surely not beneficial for the smaller countries, yet is never acknowledged by many in the U.K. How often during the E.U. Referendum debate was there a mention of it? It’s difficult to imagine Romanian leftists thinking that emigration is a healthier solution than staying and fighting for better wages and conditions. 

This is the paradox of liberal globalism: it celebrates openness and tolerance, yet all too often allows these values to mutate into an endurance for exploitation. Are we suddenly a compassionate and pluralistic society because we want the service sector to be staffed by wage-squeezed Eastern Europeans living in cramped conditions?

What should also be highlighted is that this is a labour shortage of an entirely different character in Eastern European countries. In Britain, it stems from a reluctance to pay higher wages to a domestic workforce. But in several Eastern European countries, the issue is that those domestic workforces are rapidly thinning. The biggest countries within the E.U. will not complain about this setup, given that it favours them significantly. And for years, Britain was also indifferent to the growing anxiety about impact upon the labour market. After 2016, these concerns could no longer be ignored.

The liberal model for immigration rested upon celebrating the diversification of exploitation. The desire to embrace difference was never ever regulated by the leftist anxiety as to whether workers are treated properly or not. But the answer is to labour shortages is to invest in training and pay people higher salaries.

It’s difficult to envisage die-hard Remainers finally letting go of Brexit and moving on. Every setback in Britain is an opportunity to remind us all of what a mistake leaving was. Meanwhile, wages are finally picking up across sectors in which workers have suffered very low pay for far too long. And Britain is not lurching into the economic crisis many feared would befall us.

Perhaps it’s time to admit that the Brexiteers got it right.

A guest post by
Freelance writer. U.K.-based Muslim leftist. Focus on inequality and social cohesion. Work has appeared in HuffPost, UnHerd, Arc Digital, and elsewhere.