Construction lobbyists were united in their call that restricted access to migrant labour could have severe repercussions for the industry.
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) was commissioned by government to provide an evidence base for the design of a new migration system after Britain leaves the European Union.
MAC’s report1 concludes that unless immigration rules form part of the severance negotiations, then there should be no difference under the new rules between EU citizens and the rest of the world.
MAC chair Alan Manning said: “If – and this is not a MAC recommendation – immigration is not to be part of the negotiations with the EU and the UK is deciding its future migration system in isolation, we recommend moving to a system in which all migration is managed with no preferential access to EU citizens. For lower-skilled workers, we do not see the need for a work-related scheme with the possible exception of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme; as that labour market is totally distinct from the labour market for resident workers. This does not mean there would be no supply of low-skilled migrant workers – most of the existing stock would remain and there would likely be a continued flow through family migration or the existing youth mobility scheme. We know that some sectors will lobby intensively against this proposal. If there is to be low-skilled work route we do not think it should be based around sectors: an extended youth mobility scheme would be preferable, as is suggested in the government white paper published in July.”
The report makes allowances for agriculture as 99% of seasonal agricultural workers are from EU countries outside of the UK. No other industry is granted such dispensation, however.
In general, access to the UK will be easier for those with high paying jobs to come to, although the definition of high paying should be relaxed. If we need grunts for low paid work – such as in the hospitality sector, for example – it suggests extending the current young person’s work visa system.
However, the widespread use of migrant workers to keep labour costs down is not recommended. “We do think it important to have protection against employers using migrants to under-cut UK-born workers,” the report says.
Business lobbyists are fearful. Matthew Fell, UK policy director at the Confederation of British Industries, said that “plans outlined for low-skilled workers are inadequate, and risks damaging labour shortages”.
Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders said “the report makes very worrying reading for the tens of thousands of small construction firms across the UK who are already deeply concerned about the skills shortage”.
He said: “Its recommendations ignore the pleas of construction employers who have called on the government to introduce a visa system based on key occupations rather than arbitrary skill levels. Instead, the proposal is to apply the Tier 2 immigration system to EU workers, which would be disastrous for small and micro construction firms. Even if tweaked and improved slightly, the Tier 2 system would not make provision for ample numbers of low skilled workers to enter the UK and these are people the construction industry relies upon. For the government to make good on its construction and house building targets, it will need sufficient numbers of labourers as well as civil engineers and quantity surveyors.”
Mr Berry continued: “It’s not at all clear that EU workers with important skills already in short supply, like bricklaying and carpentry, will not fall foul of a crude and limited definition of ‘high skilled’ worker. In addition, the report explicitly recommends that there should be no migration route for lower skilled workers with a possible exception for seasonal agricultural workers. There is also a vague suggestion that if there was a route for lower skilled workers, it should be aimed at younger people and not be open to workers of all ages. This is far too restrictive and simply won’t meet the needs of the construction industry.”
Brian Berry concluded: “EU workers are vitally important to the UK construction sector. Nine per cent of our construction workers are from the EU and in London this increases to one third. These workers have played a very significant role in mitigating the severe skills shortages we have experienced in recent years. The construction industry knows it needs to do much more to recruit and train many more domestic workers. However, given the important role migrant workers have played, and the already high levels of employment in the UK workforce, it is crucial that the post-Brexit immigration system allows us to continue to hire workers of varying skill levels, regardless of where they are from.”
Marie-Claude Hemming, director of external affairs at the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) said: “CECA is concerned that if adopted by government, the MAC’s recommendations have the potential to slow down the development of infrastructure across the UK.
“This will impact upon the government’s ambition to rebalance the economy, as the proposed recommendations risk a ‘brain drain’ as workers from the rest of the country are drawn to London and other industry hotspots, replacing lost migrant workers. This could devastate the delivery of local and regional projects nationwide.
“We support MAC’s recommendations around recruiting home grown talent to meet demand, but with near record low youth unemployment in the capital, options here are limited.
“CECA believes that in the long term, wider industry change including technology will address some of these recruitment challenges. But in the meantime any future migration system must be flexible enough must ensure that a shortage of workers does not block delivery of vital projects.”
The haulage sector is similarly concerned about reduced access to low-skill migrant labour.
Sally Gilson, head of skills and the Freight Transport Association, said: "The MAC report totally fails to recognise, and actively diminishes, the role of lower-skilled migrants within the UK's economy, which is hugely disappointing from a logistics point of view. The job roles covered by these workers are often based in areas of low unemployment where competition for workers is already high, so Britain's supply chain could easily be at risk if they are forced to return to their home countries. Yes, highly skilled workers are valuable to the economy, but so too are those whose work keeps us able to operate at home and at work, 24 hours a day. Academic achievement is not the only measure for value which should be applied to the UK workforce – everyone has their role to play in keeping the country moving and solvent.
"The logistics sector, especially when you consider roles such as HGV drivers and warehouse staff, is reliant on access to non-UK workers, currently employing 43,000 HGV drivers, 113,000 warehouse workers and 22,000 van drivers from the EEA – and even more during peak times of year like Christmas. Without them, schools, shops, hospitals and retailers, as well as manufacturers and homeowners, will all find it harder to access the goods they need in order to conduct their daily lives.
"Due to the regulation of the sector, logistics businesses cannot immediately look to other non-EEA countries to help plug the skills shortages which losing these European workers will cause. And the problem is further compounded when you consider there are already more than 52,000 vacancies for HGV drivers nationwide. Losing the services of these vital EU workers after Brexit would be devastating to the nation's ‘just in time' economy – and next day deliveries would soon be a thing of the past."
In response to suggestions that industries with recruitment problems should get their house in order themselves, she said: "The logistics sector is already working hard to attract people from within the UK, using a range of tactics to engage with school and college leavers, the unemployed and those seeking a career change. But the available roles are not necessarily in the areas of the country with high unemployment rates, and for many UK workers, other jobs can seem more appealing. There is already a need for 52,000 HGV drivers nationwide, and that number would soar to an unachievable total if the current EEA workers were to be forced home once the UK leaves the European Union. “
The MAC report recommends changing the system by which workers are assessed on their eligibility for working status in the UK, but this discriminates against lower-skilled workers, Sally Gilson said. "The changes the MAC proposes to the system which determines the criteria for the Shortage Occupation List don't go far enough. They would restrict those roles which require specialist training but do not meet the requirement for a Level 3 or above qualification. The government needs to take urgent action, to place more emphasis on the roles which are suffering skills shortages, and not just focus on qualification levels – without an honest appraisal of where the problems already exist, Britain's trading relationships could simply grind to a halt,” she said.
MAC summary of recommendations for work migration post-Brexit
- General principle behind migration policy changes should be to make it easier for higher-skilled workers to migrate to the UK than lower-skilled workers.
- No preference for EU citizens, on the assumption UK immigration policy not included in agreement with EU.
- Abolish the cap on the number of migrants under Tier 2 (General).
- Tier 2 (General) to be open to all jobs at RQF3 and above. Shortage Occupation List will be fully reviewed in our next report in response to the SOL Commission.
- Maintain existing salary thresholds for all migrants in Tier 2.
- 6. Retain but review the Immigration Skills Charge.
- Consider abolition of the Resident Labour Market Test. If not abolished, extend the numbers of migrants who are exempt through lowering the salary required for exemption.
- Review how the current sponsor licensing system works for small and medium-sized businesses.
- Consult more systematically with users of the visa system to ensure it works as smoothly as possible.
- For lower-skilled workers avoid Sector-Based Schemes (with the potential exception of a Seasonal Agricultural Workers scheme)
- If a SAWS scheme is reintroduced, ensure upward pressure on wages via an agricultural minimum wage to encourage increases in productivity.
- If a 'backstop' is considered necessary to fill low-skilled roles extend the Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme.
- Monitor and evaluate the impact of migration policies.
- Pay more attention to managing the consequences of migration at a local level.