British jobs for young British workers?

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Pret a Manger has announced its intention to target young Brits for 550 newly created jobs. But when rents are this high and wages are this low, how can we accept the deal that’s on offer? I find out what’s really going on…

Iona Bain

Gordon Brown was roundly condemned a few years back when he said British jobs should be for British workers. But few have noticed how this controversial notion has crept back into public life, with the announcement from Pret a Manger that it will create 550 jobs solely for young Brits. And this may be a smokescreen for a much bigger crisis hitting thousands of young people all over the country.

In an online report, the Daily Mail questioned how many of the new Pret a Manger jobs would go to “British youngsters”. It went on to state that the firm has come under fire “for being dominated by overseas workers”, with one outlet on Kensington High Street being staffed “entirely by foreigners”.

This prompted Chris Grayling, the employment minister, to say on Sky News in November that the situation had become “unacceptable”. Clive Schlee, CEO of Pret, was also interrogated by Jeff Randall on Sky News this week, who said he failed to find a single British worker in any coffee shop on a quick reconnaissance trip near the Gherkin in central London. This was inevitable in a “more multicultural” city, said Mr Schlee.

The implication hangs in the air. Foreigners are contributing and might even be causing our record levels of youth unemployment (currently over 2.6 million). But could this be a completely false connection?

In fact, young British workers are being held back by a much bigger, more intractable problem – our dysfunctional housing situation, which has intensified in our capital over the past five years. The hard-working Eastern European crew in a Kensington coffee shop is just one manifestation of this underlying crisis, punctuated by stagnating wages across the entire workforce.

The chain of events starts like this. Many first-time buyers cannot afford the deposits now required if they want to take out a mortgage. So instead, they have to rent. And pay an awful lot to do so. This is a particularly painful cross to bear for those who want – or, more likely need – to reside in London for employment reasons. This is where landlords are charging record amounts, even for properties or rooms far below our ideal standards. But if the demand is there, if the opportunities all congregate in the capital, landlords will charge whatever the market will bear.

I know several people in the past few months alone whose landlords have suddenly hiked their rent at the end of a yearly contract just because they can.

One works for a prestigious association in the financial sector – he already pays £700 a month for a studio flat in Battersea and was recently subjected to an arbitrary 10% rise.

But none of this puts off foreign workers, coming from some of the poorest parts of the world. Many will settle for a lower standard of accommodation, sometimes living cheek by jowl in what are effectively doss houses on the outskirts of London. They’re not exactly living the dream, but they are prepared to make the sacrifice, put up with a lower standard of living, work the longer hours and become the indispensable employee that a hard-nosed business like Pret desires. That same lifestyle would grind down an aspiring Brit in no time.

A recent investigation by the Evening Standard demonstrated that Pret a Manger is reluctant to take on workers who want fewer shifts at less busy times. That won’t favour British students who need flexibility or those who want a few part-time jobs on the go. And if you don’t want to travel at ungodly hours on the Tube or bus, you will definitely lose out if a foreign worker can take this in their stride.

So that does that mean that the steady influx of foreign workers is a real thorn in our side? Only if we have no choice but to take a job in a chain in central London. The situation is quite different in cities like York or Glasgow, where Pret says British-born workers make up 56% and 74% of its workforce respectively.

Most foreign workers also don’t mind that Pret only pays £6.40 an hour. Crucially, this is £1.90 short of the London “Living Wage” – the salary that the London Citizens group campaigns for, based on the high costs now attached to living in the big smoke. So school leavers and graduates might decide to aim for a higher paying job in cities like London so they can have a better standard of accommodation – and a better quality of life. Is that a bad thing?

But another argument masks the problem. The reason why foreigners take up these jobs is said to be because young British workers haven’t got the skills, their degrees haven’t equipped them to do the job and they haven’t got a “positive” attitude like foreign workers do.

Are these satisfactory explanations? Or are young people unable to accept long, anti-social hours for a very low wage and put up with Dickensian squalor in their home life, particularly when they paid thousands for a degree?

Some business commentators are suggesting that chains like Pret a Manger must be turning down a swathe of British candidates because they have exotic and impractical qualifications, and lack the ability and discipline to hold down a job (even if they have a degree and are desperate for a paying job).

But we can’t say that with any certainty – because we just don’t know how many British candidates are applying for these jobs. For the record, the firm says it would welcome more homegrown candidates – whether they can put up with the pay, housing situation and lifestyle attached to the role is another matter.

We would have to assume many young British workers are saying ‘no’ to that particular deal. Otherwise, we would have to reach some extreme and ultimately unfounded conclusions: Pret a Manger’s managers are discriminating against British applicants, or they are applying such a strict quality control to candidates – ranging from an impossible estimation of their ability to be on time, right down to whether they have a “positive” attitude or not (whatever that really means) – that schools and universities on these shores are failing to make young people employable for coffee shops.

Of course, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that qualifications have become inflated, that going through school and university has become a much easier experience. But proving to employers what that experience worth is much harder. Whatever the failings of our education system, they must be addressed separately. In the meantime, let’s not ignore the elephant in the room – the housing crisis that’s affecting all British youngsters, whether they want to serve up frothy Lattes or not.

That’s my conclusion – but what do you think? Leave your comments below.

This Post Has 2 Comments

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    The bigger question here would be concerning the long term sustainability of the UK economy and its ability to compete internationally if it does not provide affordable housing and business rental accommodation. Additionally these costs will ripple through the economy making everything more expensive.

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