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The mythical lazy British worker

Time to stop demeaning young Britons

Artillery Row

“It’s all Filipinos in the abattoir now. You couldn’t get a local to do it for love nor money.”

They’re too lazy; nobody wants to work anymore.”

It’s a timeless story we’ve all heard before. Like a game of Cluedo the people and place can change — sometimes it’s the Latvian in the Costa with a grinder — but the point remains the same: we Brits are just ever-so-lucky for these migrant workers who do what our own feckless people won’t. The tale holds that the foreign work ethic is exceptional, and our own (or at least our C2DEs’) is dismal. It’s a bit of poor bashing that people who would otherwise sneer at Benefits Street or Jeremy Kyle indulge in guilt-free. Unlike poverty porn, which has some basis in reality, the magnanimous migrant tale is mythical. 

Exhaustion and antisocial living are tolerated as speed bumps on the road to riches

The lazy Brit myth is most often peddled in middle-class circles. For a milieu so au fait with the bureau de change, it’s surprising that they fail to account for the role exchange rates play. The minimum daily wage in the Philippines, for example, is 570 Philippine Pesos — that’s around £8.50. The minimum wage in the UK is £9.50 per hour. A Filipino minimum wage worker will earn 900 per cent more in the UK than they would at home. Accounting for the conversion, the Filipino meat factory worker is not earning £9.50 an hour, he’s earning 5100 pesos a day. If he takes on a night shift, that sum could easily rise to 9000 or more. 

To cash in on the exchange rate, foreign workers have to avoid the UK’s harsh living costs. To that end they live in houses of multiple occupation, share rooms, eat cheaply and walk to work. They don’t buy nice clothes or splash out on luxuries; the condition of their accommodation is as poor as it is cheap. These conditions are eminently liveable for a year or two — knowing as they do that the money they send home to their families will, by the time of their return, have amounted to a king’s ransom. 

The exhaustion, the antisocial living and the damp accommodation are tolerated as speed bumps on the road to riches. For a Brit to emulate the austere living strategy would be a fast track to a hip replacement, COPD by age 50 and a piddling pension till the end of their prematurely ended days. There is no such multiplication bonus for British workers. By the time they have paid the rent, utility bills, provided for their family who are domiciled here, car insurance, road tax and all the rest, there’s scant left at the end. It’s not laziness deterring British workers from taking on tough jobs; it’s the pay and conditions on offer.

Why should our people break their backs all day, with nary a penny to spend at the end of the week, in competition with migrant workers who are earning 900 per cent more in real terms? Why after hundreds of years of fighting for civic and labour rights should third-world conditions be foisted upon our places of work, and Brits be castigated if they grumble about their Victorian lot? It’s not that we have grown lazy and migrant workers have saved us from our sloth, but that the massive inflow of migrant workers has ripped the guts out of everything workers and their unions fought for over two centuries.

Last year 1.1 million people migrated to the UK. That number represents the apex of the mass migration this country has endured these past three decades. Between 1981 and 2019 UK productivity soared by 87 per cent. There is no doubt that mass migration boosts growth and productivity far more quickly and more easily than investing in our own people. Over that same period, however, the relationship between wages and productivity decoupled. There is now a 25 per centage point gap between median wages and productivity.

A boost in productivity should drive up wages; that’s what the textbooks tell us. Instead a great yawning chasm has opened up as millions of workers have arrived, content to work for the legal minimum or less. As of 2021 every hour worked in the UK was worth, on average, an additional £102 to GDP. At the same time hospital corridors are blocked with horizontal patients, and our people daren’t turn on the heating. We no longer reap what we sow. 

The myth has the whiff of truthiness about it

The lazy Brit myth is pernicious not because it’s offensive and wrong — though it is — but because it is so easily believed. It’s so digestible, so simple, and it has the whiff of truthiness about it. It’s not so hard to believe, unthinkingly, that after a few thousand years of growing our own crops, our present decadence has eschewed us of the desire to get down and dirty. It has to be those people whose nations trail us developmentally who must be tasked to pick the vegetables and look after the aged. This, we contend, allows us to do “good jobs”, which involve water coolers and air-conditioning units. We can swivel about on our chairs content to know we sit on the shoulders of giants, as minions harvest our soon-to-be lunch. 

It comes so easily to the tongues of those about whom Orwell said they would “feel more ashamed of standing to attention during God Save the King than of stealing from a poor box”. It suits their material conditions, too. Simply place an advert for an au pair or gardener at a derisory rate, hire a worker who will convert that paltry sum into a great horde by sending it home, and complain that you would have hired a British worker, but nobody wants to work anymore. 

“British people are idle” did for workers what “Labour crashed the economy” did for local libraries. They’ve been undercut by lies. Just like Cameron’s lie, it comes with a second act: there is no other choice. The only solution is to bring in more migrants, as we drive down conditions into yet unimagined depths. The culprit will remain the Brit in the council house with the Sterling menthols. 

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