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Migrants fill the skills gap

AGENDA - The European Union opened its doors to workers from 10 new countries in 2004. But have they been a boost to a construction industry in dire need of labour or become targets for exploitation? Russ Lynch reports

AS WORKPLACES go, construction sites are more robust than most. But these days ? especially in London and the south-east ? you could hear more swearing in Polish than English.

Since the expansion of the European Union in May 2004, workers from Malta and Cyprus, as well as eight eastern European countries ? the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia ? have been able to work in the UK.

At the time scare stories abounded about swathes of cheap labour flooding in ? taking jobs away the domestic workforce, hitting agreed pay rates and undermining health and safety standards.

But a European Commission report assessing the impact of enlargement on domestic markets has painted a different, more positive picture.

Rather than the flood of labour expected, it found that workers from the accession countries represented just 0.4 per cent of the UK's working population in 2005 ? an increase of just 0.1 per cent on the previous year.

It said that incoming workers 'complemented existing skills' and added: 'Enlargement may have contributed to bringing to the surface part of the underground economy const ituted by previously undeclared workers.' Maltese and Cypriot workers have full rights of movement but the eastern Europeans ? the 'A8 countries' in EU parlance ? have had to apply through the Home Office's Workers Registration Scheme. Construction ? somewhat surprisingly ? is way down the list of occupations chosen by the A8 nationals.

Of 277,060 workers approved to work under the WRS between May 2004 and September 2005, just 10,655 are employed in construction ? officially at least.

The industry is just eighth on the list behind occupations including administration, hospitality, agriculture, manufacturing, health and retail.

And the workforce is a young one ? with 83 per cent between the age of 18 and 34. Nearly two-thirds of the total are Polish ? 6,445 out of 10,655. Lithuanians are the second most represented group with 1,600 workers.

With the demand for skilled workers growing ever higher ? as well as the average age of UK construction workers ? domestic firms are embracing the new source of labour supply.

The boss of one London-based labour agency said: 'Our workforce ranges from around 250 to 300 men and consists of around 75 per cent Eastern European labour ? mostly Polish and Lithuanian. We've moved away from Kosovan and Albanian workers as they were a bit more volatile to work with.

'The guys from Poland and Lithuania are as good as gold. To be honest with you, with the demand for labour, we don't know what we would do if they weren't here.

We make them come around to the office to register and they are all employed on either CIS4 cards or PAYE.' He added: 'Around 50 per cent of the workforce ? ones we have on the books more than three to four weeks ? we register for CSCS health and safety tests.

Otherwise these days it can be a problem getting them onto sites.

'A lot of the guys move on though. There are plenty of Polish-owned joinery shops cropping up where we're working at the moment and in a few years' time I can see us doing business with them.' But other labour agencies tell a different story. Peter Levchenko, the managing director of Euroresource International, an agency which supplies workers from the accession nations as well as India, China and Russia, has concerns over exploitation.

He said: 'We are an ethical company and we don't supply anybody from eastern Europe at less than the going rate for the job.

'But there are still problems. Jobs are advertised in Russian for the minimum wage and below ? especially in London ? which can undermine the job market because UK trades can't get a look in.

'This happens in catering, where a chef, for example, on £20,000 to £25,000 a year will be replaced by a chef on the minimum wage earning far more than in his home country. The same happens in construction.

We're also beginning to find Polish subcontractors setting up in London and paying the minimum wage.' The illegal underbelly of immigration can also find work at Hammersmith's 'Polish Corner' in west London, where 'employees' are touted for on the street ? completely illegally ? for as little as £2 an hour.

Unions are mixed on the exploitation issue. Frank Westerman, London regional official at electrical union Amicus, said: 'So far I've had one or two individual tribunal cases, but not found an example of a firm where you've had, say, 15 people from eastern Europe who were all being paid less than the going rate.' But construction union Ucatt has been tracking cases of labour agencies exploiting accession workers, which was highlighted by Unison's Patricia McKeown in a House of Commons inquiry.

She told MPs: 'Ucatt has f lagged up its very serious concerns that there are clear instances in the construction industry of, by one means or another, dismissing existing workforces to replace them ? particularly with workforces from some of the accession countries.

'All of that is a big issue for the trade union movement because we have got to protect the people coming in, we have got to protect the people already here and, as it happens, the issue of racism grows ? because the resentment and the fear of it all is going to manifest itself in clear racism.' Eastern European skills will be an essential part of the equation with the building programme for London's 2012 Olympics on the horizon. But, despite official figures from the Home Office and the European Commission showing the positive impact of labour migration, tough safeguards are needed to ensure that the capital's showpiece is not built at the expense of the pay and conditions of its pan-European labour force.