Why U.K. employers prefer foreign workers

Demonstrators march with placards as they take part in a protest to mark the nationwide day of strikes in London, Thursday, June 30, 2011. British teachers and public service workers swapped classrooms and offices for picket lines Thursday as hundreds of thousands walked off the job to protest pension cuts. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)   | Photo Credit: Matt Dunham

A piece of advice that newly arrived Indian immigrants often get from their British friends is — never do anything “silly” on a weekend because you are not likely to get any help until Monday. “I remember being told jokingly when I arrived on these shores 30 years ago: don't die on a Friday afternoon unless you've pre-booked your funeral arrangements!” a Bangladeshi minicab driver said.

When it comes to work practices, there is no dearth of national stereotypes — the “French leave,” “Spanish practices,” the “Third World syndrome.” Britons, much to the irritation of their European neighbours, claim to work the longest hours in Europe seldom failing to have a dig at the French for their “measly” 35-hour week and long, leisurely lunches.

Britain, they stress, is the only country which has an “opt-out” from the European Union's working time directive that imposes a 48-hour maximum working week on its member-states. The British opt-out means that U.K.-based employees may work longer if they wish but they cannot be forced to do so.

Claims by a European think tank, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, in a report three years ago that Britons were among the “hardest working people in Europe” with only Romanians and Bulgarians putting in longer hours received tub-thumping coverage in the British media. The uber-nationalist Telegraph made a point of rubbing in the bit that said the French worked the least hours.

“By comparison, the French spend an average of just 37.7 hours a week at work, effectively giving them an entire afternoon off compared with British workers,” the newspaper noted gleefully adding: “And while working hours in many parts of Europe are generally falling, those in Britain are rising — from 40.7 hours last year in 2006.”

Not quite persuaded by these claims, a well-known British stand-up comic decided to check it out for himself and found that the picture was not quite as rosy as he had been led to believe. In a hilarious piece, “At All work and no play?” in The Guardian, Dave Cohen wrote how a senior EU official protested ‘non, non, non' when he asked whether it was a fact that Brits were the hardest working people in all of Europe after the Romanians and Bulgarians.

Mr. Cohen was shown a copy of the Fourth European Working Conditions Survey 2007, a detailed statistical analysis produced by the European Foundation (Eurofound), about working practices across Europe.

And what did it show?

“The closer I looked at the figures, the more surprised I was. The survey examines hours worked across 31 countries in Europe, including every member of the EU. Whichever graph I looked at — number of days worked, number of hours, average weekly hours — we were statistically dull. Just to rub things in it was even mentioned in the report. (`Surprisingly, considering the importance of this debate in the British context, the U.K.'s working hours are about average.') I thought I'd better check the facts … But every survey said the same thing — the British do not work the longest hours in Europe, even before you include those hard-grafting ex-communists and Turkish farmers who boost the ‘hours-worked' statistics across the continent,” he wrote.

Three years later, the Fifth European Working Conditions Survey 2010 placed Britain among countries with above-average annual working hours (1,800-1,900 hours) along with Latvia, Ireland, Romania, Cyprus, Lithuania, and Italy but there was a sting in the tail. Britain, it clarified, was a “border-line” case and “at the lower end of the group of countries with above average annual working hours.” Put bluntly, Britain's above-average performance was essentially a statistical illusion. On the ground, things had not changed much.

Actually, working time in most west European countries is said to be decreasing because of improved employment conditions. Most fixed jobs now come with a relatively high amount of paid annual leave than before. The EU's 48-hour maximum working week norm is rarely breached.

But, currently, there is a broader debate going on in Britain. It is not just about whether Britons put in longer hours than their European counterparts but about their very work ethic and whether many of the young Britons coming into the job market are fit to be employed at all. Studies show that British employers prefer foreign or immigrant workers to Britons because of their attitude to work. The perception about British workers' lackadaisical approach to work cuts across the political/ideological divide.

A new report by the Centre for Social Justice, a right-wing think tank, says the widespread unemployment among Britons is down mostly to a lack of work ethic with 62 per cent of the employers saying they turn down British workers because of their “poor work attitude and ethic.” The report calls for a fourth “R” —responsibility — to be added to the three “Rs” — reading, writing and arithmetic.

Recently, an Indian industrialist unwittingly waded into the debate when he criticised the “work ethic” of some of his British workforce and went on to draw a contrast with Indian workers who, he said, were willing to go the “extra mile” in crisis situations. His remarks were described by one liberal commentator as the “ultimate empire-strikes-back moment” pointing out how in the “bad old days of the raj” the Brits revelled in lecturing the “lazy” natives on work ethic.

In an interview to The Times, which was forced to apologise for tweaking the context in which he had made the comment, Ratan Tata recalled his frustration at the culture he found at two British companies, Corus and Jaguar Land Rover, when he bought them. Nobody, he said, was “willing to go the extra mile, nobody.”

In India, on the other hand, he added: “If you are in a crisis, if it means working to midnight, you would do it. The worker in JLR seems to be willing to do that; the management is not.” At JLR “the entire engineering group would be empty on Friday evening, and you have got delays in product introduction. That's the thing that doesn't happen in China or in Indonesia or in Thailand or in Singapore.” Under the new management, he said, things had changed.

The newspaper clarified that his comments “related to his view of the environment which existed when the Tata Group bought JLR and Corus and U.K. managers generally, and were not about his current management and staff.”

While some, especially on the Right, sounded upset arguing that similar remarks by a British employer about Indian workers would not go down well in India, the general reaction was one of agreement with Mr. Tata's views. In an editorial, The Sunday Times said he had put his finger at the right place.

“Mr. Tata was giving voice to a phenomenon that many in business are well aware of. There have been so many reports about Britain's mythical ‘long hours culture' that we have come to believe it. In fact, too many have it too easy. Surveys show company directors believe they are poorly served by Britain's middle managers, while managers rail against the lack of direction they get from senior executives. The result is that many middle managers, who should be the backbone of corporate Britain, are disillusioned time-servers.”

This was echoed by many British employers who are under pressure from the government to give “British jobs to British boys.” Reacting to the government's call to hire more young British workers instead of immigrants David Frost, Director-General of British Chambers of Commerce, said businesses required young people who were able “to read, to write, to be able to communicate and have a strong work ethic.”

“Too often that's not the case and there is a stream of highly able eastern European migrants able to fill those jobs. They are skilled, they speak good English and, more importantly, they want to work,” he said.

Other employers made the same point arguing that although British businesses wanted to give jobs to local people they struggled to find many “employable” young Britons. “The challenge is to ensure that more young Britons are in a position to be the best candidate,” a senior official of the Confederation of British Industry said.

Sir Terry Leah, former boss of the supermarket chain Tesco, described British school standards as “simply not good enough” to prepare children for the world of work. British businesses, he pointed out, needed more pupils to be taught “harder” subjects at school such as mathematics, sciences and languages.

“It's not a good reflection of what's needed for success in business. Success in business is about good manners, the ability to work in a team, to motivate others, to give more in than you take out, about integrity,” he said.

The debate is not new but has acquired an urgency — and is becoming increasingly ill-tempered — because of the current difficult economic climate which has made old notions of work ethic redundant. Long weekends sprawled before the telly are no longer sustainable.

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