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Europe: The Final Countdown

We Asked EU Migrants if Work Benefits Were Actually What Drew Them to the UK

David Cameron convinced EU leaders to essentially prevent EU nationals working in the UK from accessing in-work benefits. But what do the people affected by the freeze actually think about it?

by Maya Oppenheim
Mar 13 2016, 12:00am

Illustration: Dan Evans

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

In all the squabbling and politicking around Brexit, we may have forgotten about the migration deal that David Cameron wrangled last month, when he convinced EU leaders to grant Britain an "emergency brake," basically preventing EU nationals working in the UK from accessing in-work benefits for their first four years here. But what will this mean, in practice, when it kicks into effect in 18 months?

Mostly it will hit those in low-paid, long-hour jobs hardest. To put it simply, two people could be working for the same basic wages, but one would be barred from claiming any in-work benefits because they're from the EU, and not the UK. Working Tax Credit and housing benefits are the two main types of benefits to be cut, and EU migrants were already banned from claiming out-of-work benefits like Jobseekers' Allowance a year ago.

For Noel Dandes, who moved to the UK in September 2010 from Greece, in-work benefits were the difference between surviving and sinking. "When I came here and I worked in a bakery for a year, I wasn't getting paid enough," he says, "so for four months I claimed Working Tax Credits. It really helped me out. In London the minimum wage is not enough to survive."

Noel, looking rather pleased now that he's off the low-wage job

When I ask Noel, who now works as a teacher in an international further education college, how much benefits were part of the "pull factor" in bringing him to Britain, he scoffs. "Every European I've met in the last six years in the UK has come here either to study or to work; I've never met anyone who came here with the explicit purpose of getting benefits," he says. "I think the changes will have zero impact on the number of EU migrants coming."

Veronika Susedkova, who came to Britain from the Czech Republic, says she would have considered benefits while working a minimum-wage job as a shop assistant in Huddersfield. "It was really low-paid, around £6 [$8.50] an hour—it wasn't easy to survive. If I'd known I was entitled to support, I would have claimed. I would consider myself someone who is fairly geared up about things but I didn't have a clue I could claim any kind of benefits while I was working."

Labour introduced Working Tax Credit in 1999, with the intention of providing benefits for people in low-wage jobs—something useful in an economy like that of Britain, where thinktank Resolution Foundation found that more than one-fifth of workers earn less than the suggested national living wage of £7.85 [$11.11] per hour, or £9.40 [$13.30] per hour in London.

It's worth noting that Veronika's experience isn't an anomaly. The majority of EU migrants never come into contact with the British benefits system, according to recent research conducted by the Universities of Glasgow and Swansea. To put this into context, in 2013 in-work benefits for EU migrants constituted 1.6 percent of the country's total tax credit spending. It's the minimum wage, jobs market, studying opportunities, and English language—rather than benefits—that tend to draw people here.

"There's no longer a dispute about this; the evidence is overwhelming. EU migrants come for jobs," says Don Flynn, director of non-governmental organisation Migrants Rights Network. "There's simply no such thing as benefit tourism. It's a myth. Sixty percent of them have jobs on the day that they arrive here. The other 40 percent have jobs within a very short period of time." According to a study by UCL migration economists, EU migrants have made a net contribution of £20 billion [$28 billion] to the UK between 2000 and 2011.

Nevertheless, Don remains deeply concerned about the changes. "It will produce hardship," he argues. "One group of EU migrants accessing in-work benefits are people doing residential social care jobs. I've been having discussions with people working in the care sector about the changes, and there's a large element of straightforwardly feeling indignant. They want to know why they're being blamed. It seems to them that they're doing all the right things. They're coming and taking jobs that are in the industries which nobody else seems to want to work in, for fairly low wages."

While Cameron may have touted the "emergency brake" as a victory, it's proven unpopular with both Europhiles and Eurosceptics. UKIP have branded the move as the "#EmergencyFake" in one of their slow, zoom-filled YouTube videos. Closer to home, Eurosceptic Tory MP and former shadow home secretary David Davis has said the "emergency brake on migrant benefits would not stop a push bike." And on the other side of the camp, Labour MP Alan Johnson branded it a "sideshow," arguing the issue of in-work benefits wasn't a pull factor.

There's that political tug-of-war again. Taking away in-work benefits was supposed to be Cameron's green card to the UK staying in the EU, but it's hardly kept back the pro-Brexit babble.

In Noel's view, the so-called "emergency brake" has more to do with tough rhetoric than the here and now. "I think it's just a smokescreen for other issues," he says. "Cameron is doing all this because he's afraid of losing the EU in or out referendum, and I understand that, but there are so many good things about Europe that you shouldn't be focusing on scaremongering."

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