The number of Eastern Europeans applying to live and work in Britain has fallen sharply, in part due to the ailing UK economy, a weaker pound and new building work in Poland, the government said on Tuesday.
Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said applications from eight Eastern European countries nearly halved to their lowest level since they joined the European Union in 2004.
In the last three months of 2008, there were 29,000 applications, down from 53,000 in the same period in 2007.
With Britain in recession and unemployment rising, unions have accused the government of failing to support British workers in the face of competition from migrant workers.
Workers at a French-owned oil refinery in eastern England staged a week-long unofficial strike earlier this month over the use of foreign labour, triggering a wave of sympathy protests.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown says migrant workers make a huge economic contribution and has refused calls for annual limits.
Woolas stressed that the decline in applications from eastern Europe was “dramatic” and that many immigrants have already left after coming to look for work.
“The government is doing everything it can to ensure migration is working for the British labour market and the country as a whole,” he said in a statement. New rules will ensure British workers have the “first crack of the whip at getting work”, he added.
The reduction was down to Britain’s stricter immigration rules and wider global economic factors, including massive EU investment in building projects in Poland, Woolas added.
“There is a huge reconstruction going on there. Some of it of course reflects the economic situation and some of it reflects the changing value of the pound against the zloty and other currencies,” he told the BBC.
However, the Conservatives said the decline in applications was related to the economy’s “dreadful state” rather than tougher admission criteria.
Immigration spokesman Damian Green said that while fewer migrant workers were applying to come to Britain, 17 percent more of those already here have decided to stay.
“This shows how foolish Gordon Brown’s promise of British jobs for British workers was,” he added.
Eight states joined the EU in 2004: Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia. The British government had originally predicted up to 13,000 migrant workers would arrive after the 2004 accessions but admitted later its calculations were wide of the mark.