Senior industry figures have warned that the prime minister’s plans to curb low-skilled immigration after Brexit risk damaging the sector.
Theresa May said today that low-skilled immigration into the UK will be reduced after the country leaves the EU.
This follows recommendations made by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) in a report last month.
According to the government’s definitions, all construction industry site trades are classed as low-skilled work.
Mrs May said: “The new skills-based system will make sure low-skilled immigration is brought down and set the UK on the path to reduce immigration to sustainable levels, as we promised.
“At the same time we are training up British people for the skilled jobs of the future.”
Cast chief executive Mark Farmer said the industry needed to “brace itself” in the face of the planned change.
“Amid the continued chaos and uncertainty of the Brexit negotiations and party politics, the construction industry should be bracing itself for further structural labour market pressures,” he said.
“The British construction industry relies heavily on migrant low-skilled EEA labour, and this has grown in recent years – especially from the EU2 countries, Romania and Bulgaria,” he added.
Mace chief executive Mark Reynolds said the move was “disappointing” and called for an urgent review of the plans.
”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,” he said.
”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.”
Gilbert-Ash chief executive Ray Hutchinson told Construction News that curbing the number of EU-born workers coming posed a threat to his business.
“If, come the final Brexit [agreement], we lose access to that resource [EU-born workers] then it will undoubtedly present problems for us,” he said.
Esh chief executive Andy Radcliffe recently told CN that the firm’s growth had been hampered by difficulty finding workers with the right skills.
He said being based in the North-east meant Esh was not as dependent on EU-born workers as contractors in other regions, but warned there could be a ripple effect if such workers in London and the South-east started to leave the UK.
“If that migrant labour doesn’t fulfil the requirements in London, there’s every chance that buoyant London market – if it continues to remain buoyant – could suck out labour from our patch,” Mr Radcliffe said.
Government analysis has found that around 7 per cent of construction workers in the UK are EU-born, with the proportion in London rising to 28 per cent.
Speaking after the publication of its results last month, Kier chief executive Haydn Mursell told CN there could be some “natural migration” of workers to London from surrounding regions if EU-born workers leave after Brexit.
Mr Farmer suggested the proposed changes could force the construction industry to adopt new ways of working.
He said: “This clearly says to me that government is effectively forcing construction to develop a higher-productivity model and modernise, breaking free of its archaic labour-intensive techniques.”
A white paper detailing how the new system will work will be published in the autumn ahead of an immigration bill that will be put before parliament in 2019.