The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has advised the government to restrict the number of lower-skilled EU workers to enter the UK after Brexit.
Under current definitions, construction site trades are classed as lower-skilled.
The MAC was instructed by the government to assess the economic and social impacts of immigration and set out recommendations for the post-Brexit system.
In its final report published today, the committee advised “restricting access for lower-skilled workers” after free movement of labour ends when Britain leaves the EU.
It added that there should be no “explicit work migration route for low-skilled workers” to come to the UK.
The committee said: “Undoubtedly some sectors will complain vociferously about being faced with an alleged cliff-edge in their supply of labour.”
They added that the “existing stock” of EU workers in the UK would probably not change significantly after the rules are adapted, which would mitigate the impact of the changes.
Federation of Master Builders chief executive Brian Berry said the report “makes very worrying reading”.
He said: “Its recommendations ignore the pleas of construction employers who have called on the government to introduce a visa system based on key occupations rather than arbitrary skill levels.”
Mr Berry added: “The construction industry knows it needs to do much more to recruit and train many more domestic workers.
“However, given the important role migrant workers have played, and the already high levels of employment in the UK workforce, it is crucial that the post-Brexit immigration system allows us to continue to hire workers of varying skill levels, regardless of where they are from.”
Build UK communications director James McLarin added that construction workers from overseas were needed to cover the shortfall in “home-grown talent.
“The Migration Advisory Committee’s proposals would place too high a bar on skills and vital projects could lose skilled tradespeople,” he said.
“The industry has committed to recruit, train and retain home-grown talent but a clear and sustainable migration approach that focuses on key occupations and appropriate skill levels is urgently needed so we can bridge the gap”
Cast chief executive Mark Farmer warned that the industry now needed to brace itself for “labour market pressures” that could jeopardise projects.
He said: “The biggest risk facing construction is that, despite this muscular approach starting to force the issue of reducing its labour dependency, the industry will not be able to adapt quickly enough and will face a real squeeze on near and mid-term projects, which may even call into question the deliverability of some of the government’s housing and infrastructure plans.”
Free movement of labour between the UK and the EU is set to end after the Brexit implementation period expires in 2021.
In place of free movement for EU workers, the MAC recommends extending Tier 2 visa rules to cover workers from the EU area.
Workers eligible for Tier 2 visas must be employed in a job above a certain skill level, be sponsored by a company, and earn a minimum of £30,000.
Site trades are not currently covered under this system, but the MAC suggested the specified skill level could be lowered to cover some lower-skilled workers.
However, the Construciton Industry Migration Working Group, which includes the CITB, Build UK, FMB and others, warned that the red tape around Tier 2 visas could limit its use by construction SMEs.
”Construction is made up of mostly smaller firms who would struggle to navigate the current system for recruiting migrant workers from outside the EU.
”The report proposes improvements to this system, but it is difficult to imagine how any version of the Tier 2 regime would work for construction.”
Under the MAC’s proposals, the only possible route for overseas lower-skilled workers to enter the UK construction industry would be through a ‘Youth Mobility’ scheme.
This allows people aged 18-30 from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Monaco, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong to work in the UK for up to two years.
The MAC suggested the scheme could be extended to cover EU countries.