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Post-Brexit immigration: 5 things we learned

As the government launches its new skills-based immigration system, Construction News picks out the key points.

The government has set out its plans for its new post-Brexit “skills-based immigration system.”

The proposed legislation claims to introduce a new system that favours experience and talent over nationality.

A white paper sets out the government’s plans, which are largely in line with the recommendations set out by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) in September.

One significant change was to class construction site trades as high skilled, which the original MAC report did not.

Other proposals from the report include:

  • The removal of the annual cap on the number of work visas issued
  • A widening of the skills threshold to include people with qualifications equivalent of A levels
  • Ending the requirements for labour market tests by employers wanting to sponsor a worker.

Analysis of the key points:

Industry skills recognition reprieve

The industry will be somewhat relieved at the widening of the remit for ’skilled’ workers but leaders reacted with concern to Sajid Javid’s proposals.

By classifying electrical, construction and building trade skills within the new regulated qualification framework a huge number of specialist industry skills have been theoretically protected.

For those that have the skills, but not necessarily the qualifications the £30,000 minimum salary threshold could technically provide a route to work in the UK.

The National Federation of Builders said the immigration white paper and the threat of a no deal Brexit were making the situation for construction employers worse.

Monika Slowikowska, director of NFB member Golden Homes, said: “Telling businesses to prepare for no-deal while launching policies that would undermine construction, among other sectors, is setting the industry up to fail. The Government needs to work much harder to deliver a Brexit which provides certainty to business.” 

CECA chief executive Alasdair Reisner said: “The UK construction sector has used EU and non-EU migrant labour to deliver the world-class infrastructure our country so desperately needs. While we understand government’s concerns on this matter, and have worked to address the challenges faced, it is important not to lose sight of the benefits infrastructure can bring to all who live and work in the UK.”

Year-on,-year-off

The white paper specifically cites construction as one of the sectors that would “find it difficult to adapt” to becoming less reliant on lower skilled EU workers.

The compromise offered to mitigate this shift is a 12-month on 12-month off system that would allow workers to come to the UK to work in low skilled roles for a year at a time “to prevent people effectively working in the UK permanently.”

While this is presumably designed to mitigate the impact of a short-term labour crisis, how attractive it would be to immigrant labour is the key question.

Responding to the news Chief executive of Mace Mark Reynolds said: “I am pleased to see that a temporary visa for workers who are less highly skilled has been announced.

“Alongside the longer-term solution for mid and high skilled workers, this visa will help to ensure that UK construction can maintain access to the vital talent of migrant workers we rely on, while also growing our investment in the domestic workforce.”

The self-employed battle looms

The government acknowledges that its changes to the rules to bring the requirements for self-employed Europeans in line with those outside the EU would have an impact on certain industries where such workers were more prevalent.

It suggests that these sectors may find access to services supplied by European self-employed workers reduced.

What’s particularly concerning for the construction industry is that it is highlighted as the key area that will be affected.

The white paper cites Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) findings that suggest around 40 per cent of self-employed workers were in the construction industry.

It also found that a third were concentrated in just five occupations-construction and building traders; cleaners and domestics; carpenters and joiners; elementary construction occupations; and painters and decorators.

Mind the £30K gap

The £30,000 minimum salary threshold has been heavily criticised.

Ex-National Infrastructure Commission boss Lord Andrew Adonis slammed the £30,000 cap as showing home secretary Sajid Javid was out of touch.

Scape chief executive Mark Robinson said: ”Given that three-quarters of EU nationals currently working in Britain earn less than £30,000 in sectors such as construction, and the UK is doing nothing to encourage the 40,000 EU citizens with low skills who currently reside in the UK to remain, we are going to face a real problem come 2021 when the new system is expected to come into effect.”

FMB chief executive Brian Berry said the government’s “obsession” with salary thresholds was “particularly worrying”.

He said: ”The figure of £30,000 was floated in the Migration Advisory Committee report and was met by fierce opposition from almost all sectors. It makes no sense to draw meaningless lines in the sand when we should base our immigration policy on what will make our economy strong and productive.”

Undoubtedly construction firms would have preferred something that was based on the specialism the self-employed worked has rather than the amount they earn.

Short term gain, long term disaster

The measures proposed by the government seem to cover the industry in the short-term.

There will be no wholesale crackdown on low-skilled workers that some in the industry feared would bring major projects to a halt.

That said, there were few reassurances, regarding the longer-term, namely the present day dearth of workers in key industry specialisms which is driving up labour costs across the board.

Also in the case of low-skilled workers, if there were to be a significant devaluation in the pound, the new restrictions limiting long term opportunities to settle in the UK could yet result in a debilitating exodus of workers from UK sites as the financial incentives for short term work are removed.

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