Recognising role of migrant workers in NI

People who come to the North to work are helping to grow the local economy

The number of people in employment in Northern Ireland jumped by 11,000 to 821,000 over the three months to June. But the statistics do not show just how many of those 11,000 people came to the North to find a job. Photograph: PA

The number of people in employment in Northern Ireland jumped by 11,000 to 821,000 over the three months to June. But the statistics do not show just how many of those 11,000 people came to the North to find a job. Photograph: PA

Tue, Aug 19, 2014, 01:00

The fact that you can buy Portuguese sardines on Irish Street in Dungannon reveals more about the North’s changing labour market than local taste buds.

Figures published this month showed the number of people in employment in Northern Ireland jumped by 11,000 to 821,000 over the three months to June. But the statistics do not show just how many of those 11,000 people came to the North to find a job.

According to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, there is an estimated 35,000 people in employment in the North who have come from other parts of the EU or non-EU countries to find work.

Small businesses such as Lusitania – Taste of Portugal in Dungannon are flourishing thanks to the estimated 1,000-strong Portuguese community in the area.

Many have found work in food-processing companies such as Brazilian-owned Moy Park, which says migrant workers make “an extremely valuable contribution to the success and development” of its business.

Not recognised

But the role of migrant workers in growing the local economy is often not recognised, says Patrick Yu, executive director of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities.

Yu says migrant workers are often accused of “taking jobs or living off benefits”. But he believes that, without the contribution of migrant workers, the North might lose out on investment.

“The Department for Employment and Learning produced a report in 2009 that showed that overall migrant workers made a significant positive contribution to the Northern Ireland economy . . . It stated that the overall net impact of post-2004 migrant workers in Northern Ireland in 2008 was estimated to be worth £1.2 billion to the economy,” says Yu.

“We would like to see more new research being undertaken by the department to find out if since the recession some migrant workers have lost their jobs or if more companies have found the need to recruit migrant workers because of the local labour market.”

Yu believes a readily available migrant workforce encourages companies to expand and invest in Northern Ireland.

“I do not believe that people who come to live and work Northern Ireland take jobs away from other people. What I see is that this creates other jobs for local people.

“For example, I ask people if they think Moy Park would have expanded its business in Northern Ireland if it did not know it could recruit both migrant workers and local workers.”

He says there is evidence that migrants employed by local businesses support other jobs, and the fact that they spend money in the community benefits everyone. “If more people knew how migrant workers are contributing to the Northern Ireland economy, it might help change some people’s opinions,” says Yu.

‘Race hate’

“It might reduce the numb- er of race hate crimes and make some people think differ- ently about why migrant work- ers come to Northern Ireland.”

Business organisation CBI NI, which represents a third of the private-sector workforce, says migrant workers make an “important and valuable contribution” to the economy.

CBI NI director Nigel Smyth says some employers have difficulty filling vacancies from the local labour pool and might not be in a position to grow their businesses without migrant workers.

“As the economy recovers and employment rises, it is critical that we ensure that more and more local people, and especially our young people, have the attitudes, aptitudes and relevant skills to meet the needs of employers,” says Smyth. “Employers are looking for the best people to fill their vacancies and will continue to rely on migrant workers to help them grow where there are skills gaps in the local labour force.”

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