The government’s leaked Home Office paper first published by The Guardian on 5 September 2017 caused righteous alarm within the construction industry.
Plans to limit “unskilled” (whatever that means) and “skilled” labour will exacerbate an already critical labour supply crisis.
This is at precisely the time when the industry needs to gear up to deliver major projects.
The proposals, if implemented, will increase the complexity and cost of recruitment and create uncertainty because employers will be less able to recruit and retain EU workers.
As an industry, we need to fight back, and now. The time for wailing and gnashing of teeth is over.
The tools exist, in law, to deal with this crisis and the industry needs to lobby now.
The draft proposals (not denied by the prime minister in parliament), are alarming and include:
- requiring employers to recruit locally in the UK before recruiting from the European Union;
- requiring EU migrants to obtain permission before working in the UK;
- restricting the entry of EU migrants who are not ‘highly skilled’ or in shortage occupations;
- proposals that ‘highly skilled’ workers may have the right to stay in the UK for three to five years and a route to permanent residency. ‘Unskilled’ workers may only be allowed to stay for up to two years with no route to permanent residency.
The construction industry deserves an immigration policy that is low-cost, low in administration and high-speed, so as to bring in the required construction workers.
Here’s what the construction sector needs to do.
Immigration law reform
On highly skilled labour, the industry must lobby for more construction jobs to be classified as ‘shortage occupations’ and recruit skilled labour within the existing visa system.
On low-skilled labour, the proposed “two-year rule” will not meet the sector’s entitlement to proper workforce planning. Ergo: lobby for five-year visa periods to reflect industry needs and offer workers more.
Government should also introduce a new mid-level ‘semi-skilled’ category of workers with experience and skills. These semi-skilled workers should also be given the right to apply for permanent residency.
And the industry must demand that the Tier 3 visa entry route is re-opened. The administrative machinery to bring mid-skilled labour to the UK already exists and must be used, now.
Supporting your current workforces
Be smart: employers should immediately take the following steps:
- Retention of current EU migrants: Before the above proposals come into play in 2019, the government has promised that EU workers already in the country will be allowed to stay. This means that firms should support EU workers before we Brexit. Companies should offering incentives like retention bonuses (payable on completion of projects) or support packages for migrants and their families, to include accommodation or covering the cost of personal immigration advice.
- Apprenticeships and UK labour: Businesses should tap into the apprenticeship scheme, both to meet immediate gaps and for long term skills planning. Many employers are developing their own apprenticeship programmes.
The tools to support our critical industry are already within the government’s hands.
We must lobby to ensure that the government uses these tools. It is in the national interest to do so.
John Hayes is an employment lawyer at Constantine Law