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The Polish Plumber Exchange Program

In Britain, last week’s newspapers were full of stories about the number of people on incapacity benefit and other welfare payments. The subtext was that many people on benefits are actually able to do some kind of work, but have joined a welfare culture where it is easier and preferable to rely on state handouts instead of earning a living. At the same time, many people complain about the influx of immigrant workers, and how they put a strain on infrastructure, the availability of housing, hospital waiting lists and the like. In recent years there has been a surge from Eastern European countries thanks to the EU’s approach of enabling mobility of workers. As a result, the UK government is taking action to limit immigration of low-skill workers from outside the EU. However, the reason why the government allows immigration is straightforward and understandable: immigrants do jobs that either British people refuse to do, or do them for a lot less pay. That helps the economy overall, by ensuring there are willing workers and by keeping the tax money rolling into the government’s coffers. In the end, there is no tax to be made from British people who are slow to return to work and only willing to do so for overpaid jobs. More tax is made for the national economy if businesses can get the workers they need when they need them, then utilize their efforts in order to make a profit.

It seems a bit harsh to always blame the newcomer for the burden placed on public services. Okay, schools are under pressure to accommodate children who speak English as a second language, but British benefits claimants probably use as much space on the roads, as much time at the local doctor’s surgery and as much legal aid money at the courts as immigrants do. At least the Polish workers work, which in turn generates tax to help pay for pensions, wars and all the rest of government expenditure. Benefits claimants take, but do not give. They are a net drain on the rest of society. Some claimants are deserving, others are not. Stories about crackdowns on fraudulent claimants may help put some people off, but when I read about marathon runners who claim for years to be unfit for work because they cannot walk, I always conclude that if these are the fraudsters that get discovered, there must be lots of less conspicuous fraudsters who are never found out.

This leaves us in a pickle. We have too many people, wanting too many state services. Some work, others do not. You cannot just cut off benefits payments because some people deserve them, even if you know the undeserving will always find a way to play the system. How can we reduce the burden on the state overall, but still keep everyone happy? First, we should consider some facts, side-by-side, about the UK and Poland (source: the CIA World Factbook)

UK Poland
Population 60,776,238 38,518,241
Land Area 241,590 sq km 304,465 sq km
Population per sq km 252 127
GDP per capita US$35,300 US$16,200

I would have liked to present recent figures on the cost of living in each country, but the best survey, from Mercer, is based on cities rather than countries, and the most recent survey which is fully available dates back to 2006. This gives the index cost of living in Warsaw, Poland’s capital, at 80.4, compared to 110.6 for London. Warsaw is the only city listed in the survey. Interestingly, Glasgow and Birmingham are listed as being slightly cheaper than Warsaw, but I think it is fair to surmise that capital cities are typically more expensive than the other cities, suggesting that the cost of living in Poland is less than 80% of that in the UK.

Is there a solution? Well, we could send our benefits claimants to Poland. Think of it as an exchange program. For every plumber we receive, they have to receive somebody who has been a long-term recipient of benefits. British patients increasingly travel overseas for operations, so this is just an extension of the idea of procuring social and public goods from overseas. Any deal to move benefits claimants to countries like Poland should be a win-win. We take the pressure off our overburdened infrastructure. We might even find that we need fewer immigrant workers in the country to build and repair our houses, roads and the like. In Poland, they get the economic benefit of servicing the needs of our benefits claimants. Their shops, food outlets and the like will make more revenue, and generate tax for the Polish government. Our businesses would lose that income, but taxes could be cut to compensate. Taxes could be cut because benefits could be cut. This is because the cost of living is lower in Poland than the UK, so monetary value of benefits could be reduced without reducing the spending power or the quality of life enjoyed by complainants. According to the relevant treasury statistics the UK spends around UK£4bn on unemployment benefits alone. A 20% reduction in that bill would be worth UK£800m.

Some of you may have noticed an objection to this plan. We are talking about the forced migration of British citizens. These people will be uprooted from the places they know and love and forced to live in a strange foreign country. Hmmm. How much of a hardship is that? I want what is best for my nation, which is not the same as what is best for a minority who make no contribution to the nation. Living in the place you want to live is a privilege, not a right. Polish plumbers do not move to the UK because they love Britain’s culture or way of life. They do so in order to work and generate income. Lots of Britons have also learned in the last few decades that they need to make sacrifices in order to generate an income. One of those sacrifices is being mobile enough to go where the work goes. Why should it be different for benefits claimants? Why should they have superior rights to live where they like, irrespective of the economic realities? We should keep Britain an economic powerhouse by making it a decent home for people who want to work, not a holiday home for people who cannot or will not work. Complaining about foreign beneficiaries of our welfare state is understandable, but why should we be more tolerant of British citizens that take advantage of it? If the best outcome for Britain means turning Polish plumbers into Brits by teaching their children English, and forcing British benefits claimants to take foreign holidays until they are able and willing to join the working world, that seems like a fair exchange to me. And it might just encourage a few more marathon runners to find their route back to work.

One Response

  1. So I’m lost. I don’t know which part of this is about plumbing services. Is it like a foreign exchange student sort of program? That would be pretty cool! I know that plumbing is different in different countries so that’d be a great way to learn new techniques, huh?

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