Foreigners working in the UK

17 November 2016
What was claimed

95% of new workers are foreigners.

Our verdict

Incorrect. These employment figures don’t tell us the number of new workers, only the overall change in employment. The claim also defines “foreigners” as all people born outside the UK, including those who are UK citizens. About 450,000 more people in the UK were employed in July-September 2016 than had been the year before, and roughly half of the increase was due to an increase in the number of non-British citizens.

“95% of new workers are foreigners”

The Times, 17 November 2016

Update 2 Nov 2016: Since we wrote this article the Times has updated its headline so that it is accurate. Thanks to the Times for doing this quickly.

This claim is based on employment figures which don’t tell us the number of new workers. It also defines ‘foreigners’ as people born outside the UK, including those who are UK citizens.

The Times’ article reported the changes accurately, but the headline was wrong.

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The claim is based on the headcount of people who work in the UK. About 32 million people were employed in July-September 2016—almost half a million more than the year before.

As The Times says, 95% of the increase was made up of a change in the number of people born outside the UK.

But confusingly, only 53% came from a change in the number of non-British citizens.

So it matters who you class as a ‘foreigner’. Do you include anyone who was born outside the UK? Do you stop calling them a foreigner when they become a citizen? Or do you use some other standard all together?

Neither group is a subset of the other. You can be in both born in the UK and be a UK citizen, you can be neither, or you can be just one of them.

Boris Johnson, the UK’s foreign secretary, is an example a UK citizen who was born in New York. He would be included in the Times’ definition of ‘foreigner’.

‘New Workers’

Perhaps more confusingly, these figures aren’t actually telling us the numbers of new workers.

Imagine 20 people lose their job and 40 different people find one. The overall change is 20 more people in work, even though there are actually 40 ‘new workers’.

These employment figures just tell us the overall change. We know the number of people employed and unemployed in one year, and the number of people employed and unemployed in the next year. We also know their citizenship status and where they were born.

So we can say that more UK citizens and more foreigners (by any definition) are in work this year, than last year.

But these figures don’t tell us how many people have been hired, fired or quit.

Nor do they tell us who gets what kind of jobs, who is winning or losing from immigration, or why the changes have happened in the way they do.

Hiring and Firing

Some statisticians have said it’s statistically "meaningless" to make the kind of comparison the Times has done, and the UK Statistics Authority has cautioned against people making similar comparisons in the past.

The ONS does publish experimental statistics for the number of people entering and leaving work. It doesn’t published breakdowns by nationality or country of birth, and told us that it wouldn't be possible in the foreseeable future.


Update 18 November 2016

This article was updated to include a response from the ONS.

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