Brexit campaigners have been handed a fresh boost in the ongoing immigration debate, ahead of the EU referendum in five weeks time on 23 June, after figures showed the number of EU migrants working in Britain is 224,000 higher than the same time one year ago. The number of EU nationals working in Britain now stands at a record 2.1m, according to statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released on Thursday (19 May).
EU workers now account for 6.8% of the workforce – up from 2.6% a decade ago. While employment for nationals of the 28-member bloc increased sharply over the 12 months to March 2016, "non-UK nationals from outside the EU working in the UK were little changed at 1.19m."
Eurosceptics pounced on the figures, claiming that Britons are left dealing with the "consequences of uncontrolled immigration." Former cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith said: "Our labour market is thriving, but it's notable that more than three quarters of the rise in employment over the last year has come from people born abroad.
"The truth is that it is British people on low pay – and those out of work – who feel the consequences of uncontrolled migration," he added. "'They are forced to compete with millions of people from abroad for jobs, and they suffer downward pressure on their wages. The only way to take back control of our borders, economy and democracy is to vote leave."
But this argument was rejected by pro-EU campaigners, who claim that a Brexit would actually be more harmful to wages rather than immigration from the EU. "There is no evidence that EU immigration does much harm to the jobs or pay of British people," John van Reenen, director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, told the Financial Times.
"By contrast, Brexit will inflict major damage on the real wages of ordinary workers by damaging trade, investment and productivity," he added.
The ONS warned that the data denotes the number of people in employment, rather than the number of jobs and that "these estimates should not be used as a proxy for flows of foreign migrants into the UK."
A government spokesperson said: "The reality is nine in 10 people in work are British. Over the last year the employment rate for British nationals has risen to the highest comparable level since records began."
A YouGov poll for The Times, reported on Wedneday (18 May) showed 44% of respondents wanted Britain to stay in the EU, compared to 40% who wished to leave. The previous poll gave the Remain camp a two-point lead.