'Town's getting multicultural and that's good': How Swindon views changes in its workforce

The arrival of the Victorian railway turned Swindon into one of the fastest-growing industrial towns in the UK.

Workers flocked to the thriving Wiltshire hub from all over Britain.

In more recent times, Swindon has been attracting people from further afield - so many, in fact, that one in five of the town's population was born abroad.

In 2011, 26,911 people in Swindon were born outside the UK. By 2021, that figure had risen to 47,656. The British-born population, by comparison, had risen from 182,215 to 185,754.

On Manchester Road there are a host of shops, with signs boasting goods from all over Eastern Europe and South Asia. There are dozens of small businesses with diverse heritage.

Asher Graham, who owns a barber shop on the street and has lived in Swindon all his life, says he has seen a change over the last few years: "The town's getting multicultural and that's good.

"That's what we need and like - everyone's just getting to work."

Mr Graham employs two foreign-born barbers - one, Gaja Sherlekar, 50, is from Goa. He tells us: "There are many opportunities here so people are coming from abroad."

The barber shop is busy, and soon Mr Sherlekar finds himself cutting the hair of British-born Jamie Carash.

Mr Carash, 50, owns his own business, and declares: "A lot of foreigners [are] coming over and driving the prices down, but again I did end up taking two of them on as well…their work ethic is better than most of my guys."

But Mr Carash insists that there are not enough controls on immigration.

"I just think it's gone a bit too far," he says, adding: "I mean some places you go to in England… you're kind of an outsider in your own country."

Across the UK there's been a significant increase in the number of foreign-born workers.

From January to June this year, there were 6.8 million foreigners in employment across Britain - 20.7% of the UK workforce. In the same period in 2014, there were 4.6 million foreign workers - 15% of the working population.

Migrant men are more likely to be in work than their British-born counterparts - 82% of working-age men are employed, compared to 78% of UK men.

Foreign-born workers also lead in high-skilled jobs - 36% of those born outside the UK are in specialist employment, ahead of 33% of British workers.

These statistics are likely to reinforce views on both sides of the immigration debate.

Some will see them as evidence that migrants are essential to Britain's economy, while others will claim that immigrants are taking the jobs of British workers.

In Swindon town centre, sheltering from a June downpour, we meet Jason who's in his fifties, unemployed and looking for work.

He believes immigration is a big problem for him. "I can't get a job. They come to this country, they can just get a job just like that," he says.

He then reveals he has a criminal record and served time in prison for assault around three years ago, a reason why, he claims, some employers have refused his application. Even so, he insists immigrants are to blame for his joblessness.

Other people, however, say they welcome workers from abroad.

Christine, out shopping with her adult son Jack, tells us: "We've always been that sort of country that is taking in genuine refugees.

"At the end of the day we do need people from around the world to help with certain jobs.

"Where I live, near a farming community, they're really struggling with trying to get people to come in."

At a car wash near Swindon's train station all the staff are recent migrants.

The manager, Fazlumenallah Azizi, 50, employs them and admits he came to the country on the back of a lorry as an Afghan asylum seeker back in 2001.

But he thinks immigration has now gone too far in Britain, putting pressure on public services. "If you're going to the hospital now you have to wait three to four hours now, that's an example," he complains.

But Mr Azizi isn't convinced by people who say that he could be giving jobs to UK-born workers instead.

"Yeah, they could say that, but I don't know if you ask them to come and work in the car wash, I don't think they would come."

Emma George, 53, runs a law firm in Swindon's Old Town with her husband, Francis.

She has repeatedly recruited foreign staff whose applications stand out. "I think our homegrown students or graduates aren't really as driven as those coming from overseas," she believes.

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Bianca Milea, 30, works at the firm as a paralegal. She came to the UK from Romania eight years ago with no plan and "wanted an adventure". She worked as a waitress and in a call centre before studying for a law degree.

She rejects the idea that she has replaced a British worker: "I don't think that I'm taking anyone's place because I worked to be where I am today."

Emma's daughter, Stella, 19, is helping at the firm while home from university.

Both mother and daughter worry that immigration has become such a political battleground not just in the UK but across Europe.

Mrs George says: "It actually makes me feel quite sad and quite frightened, actually, for the future, because I fear it's all very negative."

Her daughter agrees: "I think the kind of narrative that they're spreading at the moment that there's all these negatives to immigration is just really dangerous for anyone who's ever emigrated at all.

"That just turns into casual racism, I think, amongst the general population."

For all the tough talk on migration by politicians, successive governments have allowed foreign workers to keep coming.

That's because British industry argues it needs them - despite the concerns of those who feel their country is changing as a result.