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EU workers reveal UK failings

17 June 2016

I HAVE a team of three cleaners who turn up at my house once a week, bring their own equipment, and go through my kitchen, bathrooms, bedroom, study, and sitting room in a whirlwind of Hoovers, bleach, and polish; iron any sheets and clerical shirts; and depart within an hour.

They are Polish. Communication is somewhat limited — when I had a cat to stay recently, I indicated with a cartoon cat face on the front door that he should not be allowed out. If there are any serious problems, I communicate with their agent.

I pay by credit card once a month. It isn’t cheap, but it is massively convenient; and I look forward to their visits because they are ultra-reliable, hard-working, and efficient. There has been one small breakage in five years, and one accident with an iron.

The EU is a single market, and the free movement of people enables individuals to take jobs far from home. Belonging to the EU means that, in a sense, jobs are not strictly British, French, or German: they are European.

British people are as free as my cleaners to seek employment in other parts of Europe, and language is not always a barrier. Many of our migrant workers have a fierce work ethic and high aspirations. They can hardly be blamed if they see the opportunities offered by the free movement of people as a stepping-stone to greater prosperity.

Migration, temporary or permanent, is turning out to be the biggest and most divisive issue in the referendum debate. There is little doubt that the middle classes have gained most from European migrant workers.

Yet their presence has also suppressed wages, and put an extra burden on public services, especially the NHS — although the NHS and other health agencies have also benefited hugely from an inflow of nurses, doctors, and care workers from other parts of Europe.

Most disturbingly, I think, European migrant workers show up long-term failures in our own society. The work ethic that they manifest, rooted as it often is in strong family ties and values derived from religious faith, simply shames us. It is easier to say that they have come to steal our jobs than it is to face up to having so many people who are unprepared or unwilling to take them.

Shame is one of the most dangerous and powerful emotions, and it is rarely named. If Brexit wins, it will be, not least, because Europe shows us things about ourselves that we do not like much, and cannot quite bear to live with.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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