Construction facing up to the facts on migrant workers

A third of companies in the construction industry employ foreign workers, but less than half (45%) of UK construction's 270,653 migrant workers are from EU countries, representing just 5.7% of the 2.1 million total workforce. This is according to a new large-scale study of the industry carried out by the Construction Industry Training Board, IFF Research and the Institute of Employment Research at Warwick University. The research found that the most common countries of birth of non-UK workers are EU states, which provided 122,094 construction workers in 2015.

The study interviewed employers, employment agencies and individuals. It found the industry's non-UK workers are mostly skilled and are often regarded as having a strong work ethic. A third of companies interviewed said they employ migrants due to a shortage of skilled hands rather than in pursuit of cheaper labour, particularly so in London. One in two construction firms in the capital say they are highly dependent on foreign workers, compared to one in six in Yorkshire and Humberside, the study says.

Professor Anne Green from the Institute of Employment Research, said: "The UK construction sector relies on migrant labour alongside UK workers to meet demand. This is especially the case in London. Migrant labour plays a key role in offering flexibility for the sector to respond in a timely fashion to project requirements. This means that the future immigration policy matters, as does the training of UK workers."

The workforce remains mainly British, however,. Only 1 in 8 construction workers were born outside the UK and less than one in 15 came from the European Union (EU).  The research also found that three-quarters of migrant workers surveyed expect to be working in the UK in 12 months’ time, with only 1 in 20 expecting to move abroad. Over half said they intend to work in the UK until retirement.

Two in five agencies interviewed are expecting staff shortages due to Brexit. Three quarters of employers have not seen any impact from the Brexit result so far, but those that have noticed a difference, reported increased costs and project delays due to uncertainty and a lack of client investment

London-based construction firms were more likely to report impacts because of Brexit, but only 13% put this down to staff shortages.

Director of Policy at CITB, Steve Radley, says: “Migrant labour gives employers the flexibility to respond rapidly to a range of skill needs. Our study shows that the construction workforce is still largely home-grown but migrant workers play a critical role, particularly in major projects and in London.  

“While most firms are not reporting an impact from Brexit, those who employ migrants are concerned about the future availability of EU workers. But with over three quarters of construction workers expecting to stay in the next 12 months, we have breathing space to adapt to any changes in migration policy.  While construction employers work with government on its future approach, we will support them to find new and better ways to attract, train and retain the workforce they need."