One of the talking points of the Brexit campaign was that too many EU workers were coming into the UK to work and that this should be stopped. Yet, this rhetoric left something out: it wasn’t that long ago, that hundreds of thousands of British construction workers were working in Germany.
In the 1980s and 1990s, when the UK was in the middle of a hard recession, thousands of British workers went abroad to try to earn some money. Their preferred destination was Germany, where they ended up significantly undercutting the local wages.
I ran across this newspaper article from 1993, which perfectly illustrates the situation: “Postcard from a Berlin building site: To escape the UK recession workers are pricing themselves into a job and out of the protection of the law, reports Steve Boggan”.
To show the mass scale of this phenomenon, let’s turn to the numbers of British construction workers in Germany cited in the article: “ One sub-contractor said the figure was nearer 100,000; British Embassy officials in Berlin put it at about 40,000.”
The reason why so many Brits were hired was because they were willing to work for much less money than the local German workers. To cite another article: “ The cost of employing a skilled German bricklayer comes to DM85 an hour, including the steep national insurance contributions mandatory under German law. The cheaper solution is to sub-contract the work, for between DM35 and DM45 and hour. A British worker will get between DM20 and DM25 of that, with the remainder staying in the contractor’s pocket.”
This trend was so huge at the time, that it found itself reflected in the British culture of that era. The show “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” was a popular series shown on TV in the 1980’s. The plot was about 7 unemployed construction workers from various parts of England who decided to pack up their bags and try their luck in Germany.
That is why many of the arguments around Brexit were so ludicrous. The UK benefited enormously from being part of the European Union. When the UK economy was in shambles and the country was known as the “sick man of Europe”, hundreds of thousands of Brits went out of the country to search for work and provide for their families. The money that they earned working in places like Germany ended up being sent back home to the UK.
Paradoxically, things have come back full circle. The man, who invented many Euromyths while working in the 1990’s as a Brussels correspondent, has now been confirmed as the next British Prime Minister. His stories were influential in poisoning the minds of the British populace against the EU, paving the way for the likes of Nigel Farage.
What many people have forgotten is that while Boris Johnson was sitting in his office in Brussels, hundreds of thousands of British workers were forced to go abroad to countries like Germany to make a living. Memory can often be fickle and selective, which has been demonstrated in this entire Brexit mess.
One aspect of human nature is that most people have a negativity bias. They tend to forget the good things, but always remember the bad things. Populist politicians can take advantage of this, and lie their way to power. This is a lesson that we all need to remember. Hey, but Nigel Farage doesn’t care, his family has German passports.