UK businesses view European migrants as more motivated, flexible and willing to work longer hours than the domestic labour force, according to a report from government advisers.
Employers do not think of themselves as hiring employees from the European Economic Area (EEA) because they are prepared to accept lower terms and conditions, but because they are higher quality or prepared to do work that British workers are not, the analysis found.
Experts said many firms in lower-skilled sectors have built a business model in which the ready availability of migrant labour from the continent played an important and “sometimes vital” role.
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) took evidence from more than 400 businesses, industry bodies and government departments as part of a major inquiry ordered by Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
Officials are attempting to draw up post-Brexit immigration rules that incorporate an end to free movement while avoiding any major damage to the economy.
The MAC’s interim update set out a summary of the views expressed by employers.
Many suggested that EEA migrants are “more motivated and flexible than UK-born workers”, including a greater willingness to work longer and unsociable hours, to welcome overtime and show a “consistently strong work ethic”.
In addition, European migrants are often seen as better qualified for the jobs they do.
The MAC said it was difficult to objectively assess these claims.
It referred to analysis suggesting that, on average, EEA migrant workers report lower absenteeism rates than UK-born employees, with differences particularly pronounced for migrants from central and eastern European EU member states that joined the bloc after 2004.
The committee also found business is too reluctant to discuss the role of wages as a possible explainer for why some EEA migrants are employed.
Those from newer EU member states seem to be lower paid than the UK-born population, though that does not imply migration has suppressed the wages of the domestic workforce, the body said.
Some employers do not feel they could improve the supply of UK-born workers by offering higher wages, according to the assessment.
However, the MAC said it “does not think this is credible”, saying: “Individual employers would almost always be able to recruit resident workers if they paid wages sufficiently above the going rate.”
Researchers acknowledged that while lower migration would very likely lead to lower growth, it would not necessarily mean lower growth in output per head, which is more closely connected to living standards.
The study concluded that the vast majority of employers do not deliberately seek to fill vacancies with migrant workers.
“They employ EEA migrants when they are the best or, sometimes, the only available candidate,” the paper added.
The EEA comprises EU member states nations plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
Official figures have shown falls in net migration from the EU since the referendum.
An estimated 90,000 more long-term EU migrants arrived in Britain than left in the 12 months to September 2017.
This was the first time net migration from the bloc had dipped below 100,00 since the year to March 2013, and the lowest figure recorded since 2012.
Separate figures show there were around 2.35 million EU nationals working in the UK between October and December.