Brexit: does the door remain widely open or just slightly ajar for European workers?

Lesley McLeod

By Lesley McLeod, CEO the Association for Project Safety

BREXIT – no matter what final form it takes – is never going to be good news for employment in construction.

The fact the UK’s door was going to remain partly open for some of the key workers was welcome – although the list of approved professions could, perhaps, be longer. But attracting health workers, or even architects, doesn’t fill the gap there is for plumbers, bricklayers and electricians. And the income threshold just seems to indicate a preference for posh professions rather than the time-served workers the economy needs.

I am not denying Polish workers come high on the list of countries from which Britain has drawn its workers. 

But official numbers reveal this is hardly a full-length picture. There are many numbers of people from the Republic of Ireland, a surprising number of Germans and more than a few Lithuanians, Romanians and Italians as well. 

All this pretty much balanced by people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And only a fraction of the estimated three million-or-so EU citizens in the UK have currently registered for settled status. 

It may be uncertainty that is staying their hand – or it might be cost or confusion. But others simply want to go home or move on. 

The rise in reported race crime since the ‘B’ word first surfaced may have something to do with it. I know most people have been very welcoming but, if you are already far from home it can hardly be surprising that resilience to jibes and intimidation may be somewhat challenged, to put it mildly.

Then there is the ability to send money back to family at home. Workers who came to the UK were often trying to send money home. Simply put, workers were here because they could earn more in the UK than they could at home. 

Making money made the isolation of being separated from the people back home more tolerable knowing it was contributing to improving standards of living. 

Now, however, the UK delivers little real economic benefit as the pound is practically at parity with the Euro and the economies of the old east have rapidly caught up. 

The differential between home and away is, simply, no longer worth the hassle.

And then there’s the uncertainty. Reports on the state of the construction industry suggest many projects are on hold while UK business watches and waits. Until the country recovers from the current jitters a mobile workforce will simply gather their tools and go.

Regardless of whether you wanted to remain in the EU or were a gentle or precipitous leaver, these difficulties attracting and retaining qualified trades to the construction sector throughout the UK are likely to persist.

The problems may not be as acute in Scotland as the south east, where up to a third of construction workers hail from the European Union, the fact remains that upending the welcome mat to workers once willing to come to work in the UK is likely to make recruitment ever more difficult.