Migrants' Rights Network

Will the UK replace its migrants… with robots?

A curious idea seems to be emerging in the discourse around Brexit and its implications for migrant workers. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, some policy makers are pushing for a drastic reduction in immigration numbers. Already, signs indicate that EU citizens are discouraged from coming to work in the UK. This has led to fears of labour shortage in fields such as agriculture, services and health. Yet it now appears that anti-immigration advocates have a new solution to address this labour shortage: robots.

In an article linked to his latest BBC Panorama segment, Nick Robinson takes up the question that no government minister has been willing to face so far, which is what a post-Brexit immigration system will look like. Robinson notes: “The promise to take back control of our borders was the headline of the leave campaign. Yet almost two years on, there has been little public debate about how that will be done, or what our immigration system should look like once free movement of EU citizens in and out of Britain has ended.”

The article runs from the usual excuses presented by Immigration minister Caroline Nokes, to warnings of impending catastrophe by industry leaders. Industrial egg farmer Patrick Hatch, for example, is quoted as saying that “the labour crisis – and not having those skilled permanent people available to us from the European Union – is a bigger threat to us as a business and our industry than avian influenza, that is a fact.”

Yet the BBC Panorama piece also features an intriguing perspective from John Vincent, chief executive and co-founder of the restaurant chain Leon. Vincent claims that, as immigration-related labour shortages hit the restaurant industry, “people will be replaced by robots.” That is, in Nick Robinson’s words: “restaurant chains will become increasingly automated, with machines preparing dishes, and companies using apps and vending machines to sell and deliver them to customers.”

Vincent is not positive about this prospect, but Tory politician Jacob Rees-Mogg is much more welcoming. He is quoted as saying: “I think that if you look at check-outs in supermarkets, that is an efficiency for the supermarket. It reduces the cost, and it may be quicker for the consumer as well. I don’t think we should be frightened of mechanisation. Those jobs will go to robots whether we have immigration or not.”

This story of migrants being replaced by robots is also the subtext of a Daily Mail article hailing the robotisation of… cauliflower picking. The Mail reports on a prototype “robotic cauliflower picking arm,” developed in Plymouth University, and currently being trialled in Cornwall. The robot’s funder emphasises its benefits in terms of ending world hunger, but the Mail argues that “the GummiArm robot is believed to be a answer to any migrant staff shortages that may arise when the UK leaves the EU.”

The Mail’s enthusiasm for worker-replacing technology appears to be oblivious to the irony that “agri-tech” developments such as the cauliflower-picking robot are currently funded by the EU. Equally, it is a wonder how the Mail and Rees-Mogg square their enthusiasm for robots with the oft-peddled rhetoric that migrants are “stealing British jobs.” 

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Fabien Cante

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