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Migration, Brexit and Construction

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Just before Easter, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), commissioned by Home Secretary Amber Rudd, published a report which makes for very interesting reading for anyone working as a recruiter in construction. 

Extensively reported in UK newspapers, the commentary on the report generally makes the point that, whether you like it or not, we need immigrants, because the percentage of our population that is economically inactive (especially those retired) is increasing in absolute and percentage terms.  There simply will not be enough people earning and paying tax to provide for all the others who expect support from the state. Moreover, our birth rate is insufficient to plug the gap in the numbers at present so we really do need immigrants to make up the shortfall in both personnel and taxes. 

Moreover, as the MAC report makes clear, we also need immigrants to do jobs that we native Brits won’t do ourselves – or at least not enough of us will. This is particularly true in agriculture and, to a small extent, in construction. To those who say “ah, but immigrants take our jobs,” the MAC report concludes that businesses don’t employ EU migrants because they are prepared to accept lower pay and conditions but because they will do work that British workers won’t. It says that the vast majority of firms do not deliberately seek to fill vacancies with migrant workers. 

That said, the report also says that immigrants from eastern Europe cost 27% less to hire and this must be an attraction for some firms looking to maintain their profit margins. The report also provides some evidence that, especially in the lower-skilled areas, many employers are worried that any post-Brexit restrictions on hiring EU migrants will have an effect on their businesses.

You can take your personal political viewpoint and make whatever case you want either for or against Brexit, but the fact remains that it is now very likely we shall leave. With this must come changes to the UK’s approach to immigration.  Peace, as professional recruiters, know only too well the skills shortages that make it hard for our clients to complete their projects on time.  We also know that the numbers of really experienced and knowledgeable people in construction who are about to retire in the next few years will make things even worse. And we are well aware that the industry in the UK could not survive without the substantial number of immigrants working in it…

It’s clear that we need more people to labour on our building sites, pick our fruit and veg, fill our medical vacancies, develop new IT gizmos and, perhaps especially, care for our elderly and disabled.  Not just because too few of us want to do these things ourselves but because, as stated above, without immigrants we won’t have enough people paying enough tax to pay for the pensions and services we all expect as a right - unless we whack it up to levels that most would get rather annoyed about.

It may be that fewer people come from EU countries once we’re outside the bloc, and it’s certainly correct that in the medium term technology is going to make quite a few of the jobs we all do redundant, whether we’re immigrants or native Britons, but clearly the government needs an immigration strategy for the future that makes it as easy as possible for employers to hire from wherever in the world we can attract those we need, with, obviously, all the essential security safeguards built in.

Unfortunately, or disgracefully if you prefer, the very day after the MAC report was published (on 27th March), Amber Rudd admitted the Cabinet has not properly discussed immigration. To make matters worse, she also said there might not be anything definitely agreed until after the final Brexit deal is concluded. I am well aware there is a lot of political manoeuvring involved in all this but that, in my opinion, is not an excuse: we need to be thinking about it now and the recruitment industry needs to lobby politicians to ensure the system works to the country’s advantage. We need to know how we will engage with the rest of the world after Brexit, not just in terms of trade agreements but, crucially, in terms of how we attract the skilled and unskilled overseas workers who underpin our economy. 

Chris Peace, MD, Peace Recruitment


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