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March 21, 2011

If I knew only of two young applicants for a job that one was British and that the other was Polish, I would employ the Pole - says Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

The other day I was reading in a café in St Peter Port, Guernsey, an article in The Observer newspaper about the million young people of working age who are now unemployed in Britain. The curious thing was that, while I was reading it, I was being served by young Poles or other Eastern Europeans.

Indeed, from Guernsey to Scotland, one is likely - likely almost to the point of certainty - to be served by such migrants, if the establishment is any good at all. I do not complain of this from the personal point of view: who would not rather be served by a young Pole than a young Briton? Nor do I suggest that, if all the positions taken by young Poles and other East Europeans were taken by young Britons, there would be no unemployment at all. Still, tens or even scores of thousands of positions are taken by them: the question is, why?

There are several possible explanations, not mutually exclusive. The first is that the migrant workers are exploited in some way. But what does this supposed exploitation consist of, exactly? They might be employed illicitly, at below the minimum wage, and denied such protections as the law is supposed to offer them. If this were the explanation (though I do not think that it is, for the phenomenon exists in establishments where it is difficult to believe that illicit labour is used by management on any large scale), it would be an argument against the minimum wage and the so-called protections of the law, as sustainers of unemployment among young Britons. These protections would protect those in jobs, perhaps, but reduce the numbers who were actually in jobs in the first place.

If the explanation were that the wages paid to East European workers are low, all this would show is that the cost of British labour for comparative work is too high, at least where there is an open market: in other words that British workers demand more money than it is worthwhile for anyone pay them.

But I doubt that low wages and poor conditions explain very much: the East European workers certainly give no impression of that sullenness so often (though, of course, not universally) found among young Britons, who seem to regard their employment as ipso facto evidence of their being exploited, and they are often better turned-out. Most of the East Europeans seem set on saving enough from their wages to buy a house or set up a business at home, and therefore their wages must be higher than their subsistence.

Of course, it might here be said, in perfect truth, that it is cheaper to buy a house or set up a business in Eastern Europe than in Britain: why it should be so is beyond my scope. Moreover, it might also be said that the reason the East Europeans are willing to accept such wages as they do accept in Britain is that the difference between those wages and what they would receive at home, even for more skilled work, is sufficient to make it worth their while to accept them; whereas, the difference between working for such wages and doing absolutely nothing is insufficient to motivate young Britons to accept such work.

If this were the explanation, there would be two possible solutions: the first to decrease payments to unemployed young Britons to the level at which they were willing to compete with the East Europeans, and the second to exclude the East Europeans from the labour force. The former solution would be politically fraught, to say the least; in the latter case the young Britons would be able to demand the higher wages that might motivate them to work in the jobs previously taken by the East Europeans.

There are three problems with the latter solution, however. The first and least serious is that it would be in contravention to our previous international undertakings. The second is that, given the total incompetence and paralysis of the bloated British public administration, it would be impossible to implement in practice. And the third is that the high wages demanded by the young Britons (much higher than those demanded by the East Europeans) would probably drive many businesses out of existence by raising their costs to the point at which they were no longer viable.

Having said all this, I think the explanation, or most of it, lies elsewhere, in the intangible but very important field of culture. The jobs that the young East Europeans fill are not highly-skilled, in the sense that, shall we say, an electron microscopist is skilled. But just because these jobs do not require specific skills does not mean that they do not require any accomplishments at all.

They require, for example, politeness, good and pleasant manners, an ability to distinguish between service and servitude so that there is no dialectic (as seen among Britons) between obsequiousness on the one hand, and (much more frequently) resentment on the other, a willingness to learn and be told, usually a facility to do simple mental arithmetic, and a cheerful disposition. On all these scores, the East Europeans are incomparably superior to young Britons.

Even when it comes to the English language – and this is indeed strange – the East Europeans are vastly superior to the natives. They are not more fluent in the language, of course, but their intonation and enunciation does not have that horrible vulgarity and coarseness that is now very common, if not universal, among young Britons. No Pole young enough to be my grandchild has ever called me mate.

In other words, if I were running a small business in a service industry, and knew only of two young applicants for a job that one was British and that the other was Polish, I would prefer the Pole. There is a better chance that he or she will turn out personable and obliging.

Of course, the main blame for this painful situation must lie not so much with the younger generation of Britons as with my own generation. Children do not, after all, spoil themselves. And while the younger Poles have known no historic catastrophe by personal acquaintance in their lifetime, it is impossible for them not to have an appreciation of history's unpleasant possibilities, a appreciation that gives some depth to their character. Our problem is not so much how to deal with immigrants, as how to deal with ourselves.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor.


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"If the explanation were that the wages paid to East European workers are low, all this would show is that the cost of British labour for comparative work is too high, at least where there is an open market: in other words that British workers demand more money than it is worthwhile for anyone pay them."

And if a young Briton can't afford to pay the rent, you aren't paying enough for their services. And that IS exploitation.

Posted by: Kimpatsu at May 13, 2011 10:01 PM
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