Contractors are laying the seeds of a “political backlash” that could boost support for UKIP by employing European labour to fill the skills gap, former construction minister Nick Raynsford has warned.
The Labour MP for Greenwich and Woolwich told Construction News that if there was a public perception that “young people in the UK are not getting job opportunities because contractors are deliberately preferring to recruitfrom abroad”, there would be a backlash in the form of greater public support for UKIP.
He described the growing support for UKIP as being “on a completely unprecedented scale” in the past few months and said it represented “a clear indication of unhappiness” among the public on Europe and immigration.
Last week Mark Reckless, who defected from the Conservative Party, secured UKIP’s second seat in parliament by winning the Rochester by-election.
Mr Raynsford said he did not want to see an end to the free movement of labour within the EU, but nor did he want it to be “abused” by contractors taking the “easy option” of employing skilled workers instead of taking on apprentices or investing in training schemes.
A report by KPMG and the London Chamber of Commerce this month found that migrant workers would be “vital” to fill the skills gap in London, with a 20 per cent labour shortfall expected by as early as April 2015.
Labour leader Ed Miliband has previously criticised contractors for turning to overseas workers ahead of upskilling UK workers.
Mr Raynsford said he understood current pressures being faced by firms and that “at times it is absolutely essential to have the flexibility to be able to bring in additional skilled labour to fulfil jobs that otherwise couldn’t be done”.
However, he rejected the argument that contractors have no choice but to recruit migrant labour to meet skills demands and fulfil their order books.
“The upturn has been going on for nearly two years now. It was from early 2013 that we began to see a real increase in orders in the industry and the order books have been filling up ever since.
“So the question is, why have they not been taking on more apprentices, why have they not been training more people?”
Last year, Mr Raynsford co-chaired a cross-party parliamentary inquiry into getting more young people into construction, at a time when there are more than 900,000 young people not in employment, education or training.
Bam Nuttall chief executive Steve Fox told Construction News contractors had no choice but to employ European workers because the education system in the UK did not steer young people towards careers in construction.
He said: “The problem with the UK labour market is that people aren’t entering the construction market because the education system doesn’t value and promote vocational careers. Therefore school leavers do not see value in learning a trade as a career, and consequently do not enter the industry.
“We live in a European society, there’s a transient workforce, and so we have no choice but to use the people that choose to come and work in the UK. That’s why construction projects are built largely by migrant workforces.”
Mr Fox added that job opportunities were available for young people in construction, but that Bam Nuttall has found it challenging to fill its trade apprenticeship places.
Mr Raynsford also said that there was a “serious risk” that if the Conservatives were to win the election next May, or if they were to form a coalition with UKIP, the UK would leave the EU.
“The industry could find itself simply unable to secure the employees it needs when it has to recruit because of sudden pressures, the need for skilled labour or for jobs when there’s no one available,” he warned.
The Labour MP said the culture of employment and training needed to change, with politicians taking a lead and contractors accepting responsibility.
His thoughts were echoed by Olympic Delivery Authority chairman Sir John Armitt, who this week said it was the industry’s responsibility to fund and deliver training, rather than turning to the government.
Sir John said the government should instead be prioritising education and putting funding into providing careers advice for young people so that they can make informed choices.
He said: “We’ve got to get more money allocated to training and willing to build a price into the contract and clients will have to pay for it. But we won’t get quality if we struggle along the way we are doing with 1 per cent margin.
“As an industry we are our own worst enemy. I’ve done it myself and bid at zero margin hoping I can find money in the contract as it progresses.”