‘Menial’ Work and Immigration

Crony capitalists favour cheap labour, left-wing politicians see future voters, and moist-eyed globalists imagine a happy-clappy melting pot. Carpet-baggers and utopians will never grasp the truth, which is this: mature economies don’t need imported labour for run-of-the-mill tasks.

It is often heard from academia and from the popular press. Workers can’t be found in rich Western countries to do so-called menial work. Here is a headline from the Daily Telegraph (January 28, 2012): “Lucky country becomes lazy: Migrant workers to do ‘dirty’ jobs.” It plays out particularly strongly in the United States when the issue of illegal immigration is raised. It is the argument in waiting whenever and wherever questions are raised about large-scale immigration. It goes something like this.

Western societies have become so rich that native-born populations refuse to do “menial” work. Accordingly, in order to prevent the whole economic system from gumming up, people need to be brought in who are willing to get down and dirty for a few dollars. The alternative is a dystopian nightmare: rubbish piling up in the streets, dirty hospitals, unsanitary public toilets, untended parks and gardens, unpicked fruit and vegetables and, alas, rich people having to clean their own mansions.

Is there any substance at all to this argument? No, there is not. It is, in a word, nonsensical. It has no proper basis in economics. It also represents a failure of both imagination and collective self-belief. Only by admitting masses of low-skilled arrivals can prosperous and mature Western societies thrive? It is ridiculous on its face. Yet it is widely supported.