Migrant workers, safety and gender balance – construction needs Europe

Professor Linda Clarke, University of Westminster, charts a beneficial relationship between Europe and the UK construction industry

Migration has been important for the construction industry, contributing to innovation and the development of a highly qualified workforce, which is something to be celebrated. 

In Britain, the construction industry has relied very much on migrant labour, from Ireland, the Caribbean and Europe. A large part of Germany’s construction workforce has come from Italy, Turkey, and from Britain; while in France, concrete work has long depended on workers from Portugal. 

Simultaneously, large construction firms have become increasingly international, so that we are now familiar with the likes of Vinci, Skanska, Holcim and Bouygues. Large infrastructure projects such as the Jubilee Line, Crossrail, the Gotthard Tunnel and Thames Tideway are inconceivable without this internationalism. 

The free movement of labour has been a great advantage to the construction industry across Europe, for both workers and employers. However, it has not been without problems, especially in Britain where the Posted Workers Directive, which was intended to ensure migrant workers are paid rates ‘customary’ in the host country, has been interpreted by the UK government as only referring to the minimum wage.

The industry’s reliance on free movement has increased, as the UK government – unlike in many other leading European countries – has slowly abdicated from responsibility for ensuring the vocational education and training (VET) of the workforce. Consequently, the numbers of trainees and those undertaking a ‘craft’ apprenticeship are now at an historical low. In this respect, the industry relies on poaching from VET systems elsewhere, at a time when the workforce is required to be ever more qualified to work in an industry introducing greater prefabrication and mechanisation. 

Lack of regulation by successive British governments has been replicated in other areas, especially health and safety, an area the current government appears to regard as a ‘burden’. That construction has become safer, with a steadily lower number of fatalities, is largely due to health and safety directives stemming from the European Union over the past 30 years. There have been no home grown UK health and safety laws in this period, though there has been input from the UK in developing these directives through representation in the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Social Dialogue (representatives of trade unions and employers associations at European level). 

Thanks to such procedures, we have the Construction Design and Management Regulations to facilitate the coordination and management of health and safety issues on sites. The Working Time Directive has also come from the EU as the first attempt to regulate working time; introducing paid holidays and breaks. Britain would also have a limit on maximum working hours, were it not for the ‘opt out’ demanded by the UK government. The long hours culture of the British construction industry persists, a danger to the health of the workforce and excluding the greater participation of women in construction. 

So what does Brexit imply for employment in a construction industry exposed to a UK government bent on deregulation: chronic skill shortages, low wages, poor health and safety, long hours, and a macho environment?

Professor Linda Clarke is director of the Centre for the Study of the Production of the Built Environment at the Westminster Business School, University of Westminster.