Tunbridge Wells has the lowest level of job-seekers in Kent, government statistics have revealed, with immigration increasingly used to prop up the labour market.
The statistics are contained in two separate sets of figures released last month.
The first, from the government, show that during September, just 441 people aged 16-64 claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance or universal credit in the borough.
This is 0.6 per cent of those people deemed ‘economically active’ seeking work but exclude those deemed ‘economically inactive’ such as the long-term sick, homemakers and students.
It also represents a 22 per cent decrease in the number of people seeking work compared to the September 2014 figure, 648.
At the same time, figures released by Kent County Council reveal the number of overseas nationals seeking work in the borough jumped by 28 per cent between April 2014 and March 2015 to 1,138, from 890.
The figures revealing the increase in immigration and fall in job-seekers came as no surprise for one Tunbridge Wells businessman, who told the Times overseas nationals play an ‘absolutely vital’ role in the local economy.
The statistics were released at a time when the number of jobs available is increasing.
A spokesman for Tunbridge Wells JobCentre Plus in Grosvenor Road said the number of employers advertising there had increased since the economic recovery got under way.
In total, 2,781 jobs are currently advertised at the job centre. But the spokesman cautioned this figure was likely to be fewer than the total number of vacancies.
She added: “We work closely with agencies, who have been coming to us with an increasing number of vacancies. On the other hand, the number of people coming through us looking for work has been declining.”
Although the number of overseas nationals seeking work in the borough over the past year has increased, the figure could be underestimating the true number of people coming into the borough.
The data only records those seeking work, for which a national insurance number is needed. Children and other dependents are not included in these figures.
Once an overseas national has obtained a national insurance number, he or she is entitled to some benefits alongside the right to work and an obligation to pay tax.
These include income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, child benefit and child tax credit.
Government rules introduced this year mean EU migrants must have been in the country three months before being able to claim Jobseeker’s.
They then have to pass a ‘habitual residence test’ to claim and after three months on Jobseeker’s Allowance must have an ‘imminent job offer’ or lose their right to work in the UK.
Since 2003, the number of immigrants seeking work in Tunbridge Wells has increased by 139 per cent, from 477.
The Kent County Council figures identified the top three countries of origin for overseas nationals seeking work in Tunbridge Wells in 2014/15 to be Romania, Poland and Bulgaria.
Nearly three-quarters of those seeking work in Tunbridge Wells were aged 34 or under.
Raschid Gibrail, owner of Ismail Coffee and Tea in Mount Pleasant Road, believes that with-out foreign workers, his business would find it ‘hugely difficult’ to maintain the standards he believes are required in his line of work.
He said many of the European migrants he employs are ‘highly qualified to degree level’ and bring a ‘responsible attitude’ to work.
He added: “They play an absolutely vital role in the local economy. It would be hugely difficult to run our operation with our standards and disciplines without people who are receptive to our aspirations and there is a high receptiveness among foreign workers.”
Mr Gibrail also dismissed the notion he is trying to benefit from cheaper labour.
He explained: “We pay above the minimum wage and provide all the breaks and benefits expected of a business. Our retention rate is exceptional. They may struggle a bit with the language at first but we persevere and that pays dividends.
“We give our staff the opportunity to gain an NVQ and although they already have degrees, they have a great appetite to improve themselves.
“Our manager, Magda, who is from Poland, has been with us for seven years.”
But his efforts to employ and retain English staff have been less successful.
He said: “Ismail once took part in an apprentice scheme which led me to review five applicants. The first didn’t even know what we did.
“Then we explained our standards and disciplines to the second applicant, we got a call from her sister later saying we had caused her stress. All five were a nonsense.”
Valantin Ostaﬁ, who has been in employment ever since he arrived in the UK in 2007, has worked at the Mount Edgcumbe pub for over three years, making his way up to manager.
Having studied management and economics at university in Romania, the 30-year-old originally only intended to stay in the UK for one year.
He said: “I think England is amazing and I really like it here. My friends are nearly all English.”
Although the pay is far higher here than it is in Romania, he says it is partially evened out by the higher cost of living, especially as he has no plans to go back.
“I am hoping to apply for a UK passport soon as I have now been here over five years,” he said.
And he has advice for anyone else from overseas wishing to make Tunbridge Wells their new home.
He said: “People who come from abroad need to integrate and socialise with British people and their culture. I do not like it when people come here and start talking different languages in front of English people as it is rude.
“They should make the effort to learn English.”
Commenting specifically on the Tunbridge Wells figures, Alp Mehmet, vice chairman of Migration Watch, said: “These figures are to have been expected and in line with our forecasts.
“They are partly the reason why immigration is the issue of greatest concern for the British public. The figures of course refer to those intending to join the workforce. Children, for example, are not included.
“I do not expect numbers to decrease in the medium term. It is more likely that they will increase steadily over the next few years.”
Councillor Jane March, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council cabinet member with responsibility for tourism, leisure and economic development, said: “It’s pleasing to see there is so little unemployment in Tunbridge Wells which I hope proves we’re a thriving town, open for business.
“With partner organisations, we recently held a highly successful jobs and training fair to enable more people to find jobs and we are already planning the next one.”