Wednesday, 24 February 2010

BBC One productivity experiment: A productivity puzzle?

The credit crunch has presented the British labour force with many difficulties. This has come at the same time as the opening up of the UK labour market to workers from the 11 Central and Eastern European nations which entered the EU in 2004, and the subsequent admission of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. The UK Office of National Statistics placed UK unemployment between October and December 2009 at 7.8%, or 2.46 million at the end of December. Meanwhile, with the next census not due until April 2011, no one knows exactly how many migrant workers are in the UK, nor which countries they come from, although some left-wing sources estimate the figure to be as high as 3.8 million, probably an over-estimation of the reality.

Extremist right-wing politicians, commentators, and members of the public frequently claim that it is very difficult for British workers to find lasting work in the UK because migrant workers undercut them, meaning that employers will not even consider employing a UK native. This is claimed to be particularly the case in low skilled jobs. BBC One TV tonight made an intriguing contribution to this debate by sending Business and Economics presenter (and sometime Economics Editor) Evan Davis to make a programme about the issue. The result was The Day the Immigrants Left. Davis selected twelve long term unemployed British workers, from all age groups, to work in four jobs, frequently filled by migrant workers for two days - as factory labourers, farm labourers, builders, and as waiters and chefs in an Indian restaurant.

Without giving too much away about the film, the results were mainly mixed, with the skilled builders performing best, but those workers in the factory, at the farm, and in the restaurant proved to be slow to learn the nuances of the jobs and generally proved to be inefficient in them. Some, particularly the younger workers, failed to turn up for work at all, calling in sick. Perhaps most interesting was that none of the employers interviewed admitted to paying below what would be considered a living wage for a British worker - agricultural workers were paid around £44 per day on a piecework basis (the Brits managed only £25 or so at best), while the builders were paid £150 a day. All four employers noted that the foreign workers they employed generally seemed to be very productive compared to the workers they could find on the UK market, something that the programme's findings seemed to support. This was most notable in the agricultural sector where the British workers were employed to pick asparagus, with the short six-week nature of the season making the ability to pick crops quickly crucial.

It would be interesting, therefore, to see if this experiment could be repeated, for a longer period with a larger number of workers, say at least 100, to see if the results would be statistically significant. Its clearly impossible to say that British workers really are less productive when only a very small sample size was used working across only two days. Perhaps the BBC could consider commissioning a series on this, or this could even be a good quantitative academic experiment. Such an experiment really would be a useful exercise, and could help to inform the debates around migrant workers and long term unemployment, as well as perhaps silencing more extreme right wing political elements.

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About Me

London, United Kingdom
I'm Lecturer in Management at The York Management School, at The University of York, UK. I teach strategic management to undergraduate and masters students, as well as running the masters dissertation module. My research focuses on business and management history.