“Like a hole in the head”: Industry figures slam May’s stance on EU workers

UK construction industry figures have criticised Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans to restrict all but higher-skilled workers from entering the country from the European Union, saying the move would hurt their capacity to build.

They said the industry relies on high- and low-skilled labour, with one in 10 workers across the UK being EU nationals, rising to a full third of the workforce in London.

"With UK construction already struggling from a chronic skills shortage and Brexit sapping investors’ confidence, British builders need restrictions on European workers like they need a hole in the head," said Blane Perrotton, managing director of the national property consultancy and surveyors Naismiths.

The boss of large construction firm Mace weighed in as well after May told the BBC that restrictions would target workers who do not require post-aged-16 education and who earn less than around £30,000 a year, with no preferential treatment given to EU nationals.

Mace chief executive Mark Reynolds told industry press: "It is very disappointing that the government has failed to listen to industry on the importance of maintaining access to a broad mix of labour after Brexit.

"The future of the UK’s construction and engineering sectors relies on the availability of both highly skilled specialists and so-called ‘low skilled’ labour. I believe that the policy should be urgently reviewed and business consulted once again; as without access to the right mix of skills we will be unable to deliver sustainable construction growth after Brexit."

Construction is one of a number of industries that rely on low-skilled workers, but May insisted there would not be "lots of exemptions" for them.

Richard Beresford, chief executive of the National Federation of Builders (NFB), said: "The new skills-based system will create an additional barrier to building. The NFB would like the Government to consider an exemption for those in the construction industry, or an extended transition period.

"A transition period would allow the construction industry more time to recruit the skilled workforce it needs. If the Government wants to meets its target to build more homes it needs to understand that low-skilled does not mean low value."

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) also spoke up for construction and other labour-intensive sectors.

"All skill levels matter to the UK economy. Today’s proposals risk worsening labour shortages, already serious in construction, hospitality and care. Restricting access to the workers the UK needs is self-defeating," said CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn.

"Just weeks ago the Migration Advisory Committee confirmed that EU workers – at all skill levels – pay in more than they take out. They have not reduced jobs, wages or training for UK workers.

Image: Construction workers at London’s King’s Cross station ( Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

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  1. The concerns of the industry are well known but are not at all new. The parties responsible for the maintenance of sufficient manpower necessary to keep the required level of output at its optimum have known since 2016 that the end of freedom of movement of citizens of the nations constituting the EU was inevitable and imminent, so why have they not made stringent efforts to limit the effect of this restriction? By the time the UK leaves the EU in 2019 + 2 years, there will have been almost 5 years in which the industry could have/should have been actively engaged in creating the skills within the domestic labour force that would have greatly reduced the impact of the restrictions. To adopt the ostrich position and then moan does nobody any favours.

  2. The industry should not forget that a major part of the problem is the industry’s failure for many years to (1)
    adequately to invest in training and apprentices and (2) to make the industry and vocational careers in it attractive to young people.

    Successive governments have not helped when benefits have been readily available to those fully capable of working rather that those in genuine need including the genuinely unemployed.

    Is it any wonder that scaffolders earn more than architects – its called supply and demand.

    Clearly the government must after Brexit adopt a flexible policy, which serves the needs of the economy, whatever the shortfall but companies should not use any such flexibility to avid investment on workers at all levels.

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