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Without Migrant Workers, Boris Johnson’s Promises of HS2 and New Homes Will Remain a Fantasy

The plans made by the government that involve denying visas to many low-skilled workers will impact several industries, especially the construction sectors.

Why We Need Migrant Workers

This has to do with a building industry that has, since the previous recession, relied immensely on many migrant workers. The previous downturn translated into domestic workers that started leaving the industry and construction projects started to reduce, foreign-born labour at the time was easy to access as soon as businesses started picking up again. This also contributed to a skill shortage present in the UK-born workforce. The figures released by the Office for National Statistics have revealed that EU nationals now make up a vital portion of construction workforces, which make up about 8% of all the construction workers across the UK, and around 28% in London.

This source of migrant labour has also assisted the industry in dealing with the apprentice shortfalls. The Construction Industry Training Board has stated that this industry is required to fill as many as 168,500 new jobs in the following 5 years, as well as increasing the domestic workforce a lot more, in accordance with limits placed on accessing migrant workers in the future after Brexit. Yet current government figures have shown that the number of people starting apprenticeships in England has fallen to 125,800 between August and October the previous year, down 4.7% from 132,000 in the same time-frame one year earlier.

This sector is also undergoing pressures from the other side. ONS figures have shown that in 2011, 1 in 5 UK-born construction workers was over the age of 55, which meant by 2021, these people would be close to retirement age, which falls into the same time-frame that limits placed on migrant workers is also going to kick in. The restrictions on access to vital migrant labour may lead to many of the construction companies closing.

Migrant Workers Offer Skills

The government also has a limited understanding when it comes to what defines skilled workers within construction sectors. The immigrants that are recruited from abroad into this industry are mainly highly-skilled tradesmen and women that are far from the Brexiteer’s stereotype. On a positive note, the government is in the process of proposing that shortage occupations lists, which will make up a list of official occupations where there are insufficient domestic workers to fill these vacancies are now going to include plasterers and carpenters.

Surprisingly, however, this list is still not going to include various other trades which are vital to fulfilling building projects, such as electricians, plumbers, and bricklayers.

What Will Happen in Future?

More importantly, there are larger issues around this too whereby the government appears blind. The tub-thumping announcements made by Boris Johnson on home-building and HS2 were put in place to “cement the red wall”, yet this craze for assured infrastructure is going to necessitate a massive recruitment drive for infrastructure, which will require a significant workforce.

This industry is already fearing skill shortages. In a survey that involved over 400 housebuilders that McBains carried out last year, less than 48% of the respondents believed that the housebuilding target from the government was achievable. The main reason why the other respondents did not have faith in this target had to do with insufficient skilled labour.

Two important things have to happen. To begin with, the government should add various other skilled and professional trades to the “shortage” occupation list. Secondly, it has to revisit freedom of movement beyond 31 December to allow workers that are foreign-born to start bridging the gap, allowing more of the UK-born to be trained. It takes around 3 to 5 years to train bricklayers, so over the short and medium-term, this industry should still be able to gain access to the migrant labourers across a variety of important professions.

Workforces required for highly-technical or major projects are usually never met by local markets. This means this industry requires an in-part itinerant, and a highly-flexible workforce that they can call on. It is also essential that this sector is allowed to recruit workers from abroad. If they are unable to, the proposals from the government won’t only harm the construction sector but also ruin Boris Johnson’s dream of an “infrastructure boom”. More information is available from Fourwalls.