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British Unease Grows with Foreign Workers

The British government is set to announce a series of measures early next year to tighten restrictions on immigrant workers. A booming economy has attracted foreigners to Britain from many parts of the world in recent years, especially from the new members of the European Union, but also from the United States, Asia and Africa. While many provide a crucial source of labor, their arrival has also sparked an uneasy debate in Britain over a growing migrant work force. VOA's Sonja Pace has more from London.

The building boom in Britain may be driven by a strong economy, but the work is carried out largely by foreigners.

British government statistics indicate that more than 2.5 million foreign workers have registered in Britain since 2002.

The largest single group of legal migrants has come from Poland. Zbigniew Cwik is one of them. He says when he first came here life was difficult, without his family and long hours.

"The work was from morning to evening so I am just thinking about the work," he said.

He goes by Zibbi, for short. He originally came on a training course, stayed, found work doing construction and home refurbishments, brought his family over and eventually started his own business.

Many of the newcomers from parts of Europe arrive here by bus, hoping to find a job and a better life. More than 220,000 Polish workers have registered in Britain in the past year. And, in all, some 700,000 East European workers have come here since the 2004 EU expansion, which opened avenues for them to work in Britain legally.

Hugo Brady of the Center for European Reform says migrant workers are behind Britain's economic boom.

"Really, immigration in this sense as per the 2004 enlargement has been a win-win situation. I can't think of any situation in Europe in which it has not been beneficial," he said.

While some work in highly skilled jobs, most migrants do not. They work in construction, in agriculture - they build roads, sweep streets, clean houses, tend gardens and take care of other people's children.

And, not everyone is pleased with the influx. The chairman of the lobby group, Migration Watch UK, Andrew Green says the migrant workforce benefits only a few.

"Polish immigration is great news for the chattering classes, because you get cheap nannies, you get cheap restaurants, you get wonderful gardeners and the plumbers are wonderful," he said. "If you happen to be a British plumber it's not so good."

Migration Watch wants tougher immigration limits.

"We've got a million young [British] people who are not in education, not in training, not in work," he added. "Now it's even more difficult to get those people into the work force if you've got literally hundreds of thousands of bright, young Poles ready to do the job."

But, Britain also hosts migrants from non-EU states, including from the United States, Asia and Africa. The government is now set to further tighten immigration rules with an Australian-style system for restricting immigration to those with skills the country needs.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said this new point system would help manage the immigration flow.

"This is probably the biggest change in our immigration rules that has been seen for many decades," he said. "It is precisely to encourage the skills that we need as a country and to discourage the skills we don't need."

And so the debate goes on. How many migrants should be allowed in, how long should they stay, do they benefit the economy or do they take jobs away from locals?

Hugo Brady with the Center for European Reform says there is another factor.

"People will always fear the 'other' and they don't like the idea of strangers descending on them even if it is a good thing, even if they themselves have benefited from it," he added. "Somehow this prejudice remains."

For the migrants who come here, the priority is to make a better life for themselves and their families. Some plan to return home, others are not so sure.

For Britons, the issue remains an ongoing debate.