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A level playing field is best for all

A code of practice is needed to curb the abuse of vulnerable temporary workers by rogue agencies, says Andrew Agapiou

The use of foreign workers on UK construction sites is not new - the Irish navvies that built much of our infrastructure in the 19th century are just one example.

Today, the use of migrant labour in construction is more widespread and the workers are ethnically and cultural diverse. This has generated a number of issues and challenges for the industry and society.

The issues faced by migrant workers include rights, housing, language, access to and information about public services, health, employment, immigration, education, recognition of qualifications and racism.

The recent influx of migrant labour from Eastern Europe into construction has given rise in some quarters to an urban myth that their willingness to take low-paid jobs has depressed wages and forced other workers out of jobs.

A recent report by the TUC has exploded that myth by showing that, in fact, foreign migrants make a positive contribution, with their share of the tax paid exceeding the cost of supplying them public services.

Rather than forcing British workers out of jobs, the reality is that overseas workers are helping to plug a skills shortage as the construction sector struggles to meet growing demand.

Sometimes such employment is direct, but more often than not it is through subcontracts with one or more employment agencies or, gangmasters.

Some of these agencies and gangmasters use poor and illegal employment practices - indeed, some are clearly run as criminal enterprises.

But it is not only workers who are suffering. Good employers lose out if their competitiveness is undercut by the bad, and the power of the market place can easily lead to a rapid downward spiral of conditions.

Gangmaster legislation

The Government is proposing new measures to curb the abuse of vulnerable temporary workers by rogue agencies.

They include: giving workers a clear right to withdraw from accommodation, transport or other services provided by an agency without suffering any loss; alerting potential migrant workers to their rights; and highlighting unscrupulous practices they may fall victim to before they come to the UK.

The new gangmasters legislation will also help restrict illegal working and protect workers in key sectors.

The construction industry should support such moves as well as strong action against illegal employers who undercut legitimate practice, but action should be focused on repeat offenders and not those who are ignorant of their obligations.

This is where a code of practice would help. This should deal with recruitment, travel and accommodation, providing for the needs of those who speak little or no English and preventing and addressing racial discrimination and harassment.

Dr Andrew Agapiou is a CIOB ambassador