The combination of a global refugee crisis and a UK construction industry unable to find enough workers has given immigration minister James Brokenshire the idea that now is a good time to send enforcement officers onto construction sites to check workers’ papers.
He has even given this drive to weed out the wrong type of hard-working people a codename: Operation Magnify.
The operation follows home secretary Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative Conference promising to crack-down on immigration and put the squeeze on refugees seeking ‘the British Dream’. This is the woman that in 2002 warned that her party was ‘the nasty party’.
Mr Brokenshire summoned construction industry leaders to a meeting yesterday to warn them that any firm find employing illegal immigrants would be liable to fines of up to £20,000 for each illegal worker employed.
He offered no evidence that the construction industry was providing opportunities for illegal immigrants to become economically active but he thinks it is the kind of industry that might.
Those attending the meeting included representatives from construction companies working across the public and commercial sectors and industry bodies including the Construction Industry Council, the Chartered Institute of Building, and Build UK.
Gillian Econopouly, head of policy and research at the Construction Industry Training Board, attended on behalf of the Construction Industry Training Board. She said that illegal immigrants were a safety threat because they did not have CPCS cards.
She said: “We have found cases where illegal workers have used fake health and safety documents to get onsite, and we are working with government to stamp this out in the construction sector.”
More fake documents have been found on UK and EU citizens than on workers without the legal right to work in the UK, but this threat to worker safety is of no interest to the Home Office as it is outside its remit.
A CITB spokesman later elaborated: “Our concern is that everyone working on site has the right training and qualifications to be there, to maintain safety – this is often demonstrated by holding the relevant card. However, we have been working with the Home Office on cases where people who do not have the right to work in the UK are also found to be using fraudulent cards. By sharing data with the enforcement authorities, we can ensure the fake cards are revoked, and help investigate how they were obtained.”
Mr Brokenshire said: “Coming together with key employers and influencers in the construction industry is a chance for us to engage with those who are keen to maintain the integrity of the sector.
“Illegal working undermines legitimate employers, harms the reputation of the industry, drives down wages and denies employment to hard-working UK citizens and people who are working in the UK legally.
“Employers within the construction industry have a critical role to play in helping to combat this by ensuring they carry out the straightforward ‘Right to Work’ checks on potential employees that prevent illegal working in the UK.”
The Home Office said that the peripatetic, transient and temporary nature of construction work means that the industry can be particularly exposed to the risk of illegal employment. It has no plans to address the root causes of this.
New measures included in the Immigration Bill currently progressing through Parliament will make it easier to prosecute employers using illegal labour, increase the maximum prison sentence for doing so to five year and also close down businesses which continue to flout the rules.
A spokesman for Build UK, the trade association that represents some of the biggest contractors and a raft of specialist trade associations, said that it had been asked by the Home Office to help promote the message that all employers need to carry out the correct Right to Work checks, “just as they do in any other industry”.
He said that Operation Magnify was not targeting just construction – other industries were also getting special attention too.
Brian Rye, acting general secretary of construction union Ucatt, said that the government had got hold of the wrong end of the stick. “This appears to be a total misunderstanding of the issues facing the construction industry,” he said. “The vast majority of workers on organised sites have a total right to work in the UK. Illegal immigrants working in the sector are in the most part undertaking work on the fringes of the sector in highly casualised employment.
“For anyone to suggest there is a particular issue about workers from overseas having fake cards compared to anyone else is totally wrong. A far bigger problem than fake cards is workers having the wrong type of card for their work they undertake.”
He added: “If the government was serious about tackling employment abuses on sites, which affect all workers regardless of their backgrounds they would be beefing up the Gangmaster Licensing Regime and extending it to construction. Equally if you want to really reduce these abuses then you need to ensure the industry is less casualised. Most work is obtained via employment agencies and the major contractors never really know who is working on their sites as there is such a high level of turnover of workers.”
On the same day that the Home Office had its meeting with the construction industry, it published a consultation paper, Tackling exploitation in the labour market, that proposes extending the remit and powers of the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority, although it does not specifically propose including construction.