The leaked document on the government’s Brexit immigration plan, obtained by The Guardian, is a frighteningly stark reminder of the threat to construction, once we leave the EU.
While the proposals are in a draft form and yet to be discussed by ministers, it is still a timely reminder that the sector cannot afford to waste any time in working out how it would deal with a sharp decline in EU labour.
Let’s remind ourselves of the numbers.
Nearly 10 per cent of the UK’s construction labour force is from the EU, with that figure rising to around a quarter in London. Indeed, Arcadis has estimated that UK construction could lose up to 215,000 workers by 2020 under a hard Brexit.
The leaked document suggests that all but the most highly skilled labour will be deterred from working in the UK.
The question is: what percentage of construction workers will be classified as ‘non-skilled’?
Much of the media coverage of the leaked report has focused on workers in hospitality and agriculture, but undoubtedly there are large swathes of construction that could get caught by this definition.
Whereas an engineer from Estonia may be given some leeway, a labourer from Lithuania could be treated differently – if the government is to get anywhere near hitting its immigration target.
With general labourers, our industry is still highly dependent on that kind of workforce and that’s where we will see pressure, come what may.
Defence secretary Michael Fallon has said people with the “right skills” will still be welcome in the UK.
The challenge then is for the industry to convince the government of the merits of workers employed in the construction sector.
“The government would be wrong to demarcate skilled workers as professionals rather than tradesmen,” Mr Farmer added. “Craft is something that is absolutely about skills; it’s more about working with your hands, but it is a skill.”
The other issue is the timescale for the changes. If the leaked plans become a reality, Britain would end the free movement of labour immediately following its exit from the EU. There is, however, mention in the document of a phased implementation, which would give some breathing space.
Ultimately, the government appears set on the idea that this is an opportunity for British firms to employ more native workers, is this really achievable? Personally I am not so sure.