LONDON - The debate in advance of Britain’s June 23 referendum on whether it will leave or remain in the European Union has focused largely on immigration, and economists are warning that any new restrictions on workers from the continent may hurt Britain’s economy.
After the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and Poland’s accession to the European Union, hundreds of thousands of Polish workers gained open access to Britain and the jobs offered by its nearly $3 trillion economy.
Mariusz Wozniak has made the most of the opportunities that Britain has offered. He arrived in London from Poland nearly 18 years ago. Like many young Polish workers, one of his first jobs was at a fast-food restaurant. He studied, became an accountant and started his own firm.
He now owns a building in West London’s Ealing neighborhood where he runs his accounting firm, a beauty salon and a store selling Polish-made cosmetics and toiletries.
‘We pay lots of taxes’
Wozniak is proud of the contributions he and his countrymen have made to the British economy.
“We are honest, hardworking people,” he told VOA. “Some people say Polish people [are] taking benefits, but we pay lots of taxes in this country.”
Wozniak is among nearly 800,000 Polish-born EU citizens living in Britain. Their presence is so strong that Polish is now Britain’s second most spoken language after English.
But that presence may diminish, and Polish workers fear they may no longer be able to come here easily if Britain quits the European Union.
Mariano Mamertino, an economist at Indeed, a jobs website that tracks employment search and job availability trends, said there has been a sharp decrease in the number of Polish workers expressing interest in moving to Britain in the three months leading up to next week's referendum.
“This is already like an indication - signal if you want - of how the uncertainty of the possibility of a Brexit is already affecting hiring decisions of employers in the U.K. So they might be postponing investment in human capital and hiring, delaying hiring people in order to see what’s going to happen,” he said.
Economists say Britain’s GDP could suffer as a result of the uncertainty, but even more so if a Brexit is followed by new restrictions on the entry of foreign laborers.
“Employers in the U.K. have been relying on this steady source of talent from other countries in Europe for quite a long time. Should this talent become less available in the future, this would have implications for them. So employers would be hit. They would maybe struggle to fill some vacancies,” Mamertino said.
Possible labor shortages
One sector that has become most reliant on EU labor is agriculture. Alastair Brooks, a strawberry and raspberry farmer in Kent, tells VOA he is nervous about the consequences of a Brexit.
“The reality is that any interruption or nervousness about access to labor will certainly affect our investment plans for the future. I think it would hurt, is my guess,” he said. “We would either have to contract our business, or stop, I guess in the worst scenario,” Brooks said.
His fears are supported by what he saw on a recent visit to California, where he met with strawberry growers.
“They have got real supply problems as their supply of Mexican workers has been seriously constrained, and they’ve actually reduced their production, so it is a serious issue,” he said.
If Britain decides to slap new restrictions on EU workers, it may have to turn elsewhere, including its Commonwealth, to meet its labor needs, say analysts.
“I do not know who is going to make coffee for you at Starbucks,” said Wozniak. He notes it is largely young workers from other EU countries that are filling entry-level jobs in the food industry and other sectors. “They do jobs that British people do not want to do. Have you ever met a British English waiter?”