WILL THEY COME BACK? WHY BRITISH CONSTRUCTION LOST ITS EASTERN EUROPEAN WORKFORCE
In recent weeks, a persistent rumour has been circulating about migrant workers in construction.
The specifics differ, but the central premise is the same: ‘foreign workers have taken the government’s self-employment coronavirus grant money and disappeared.’
It started before Christmas when migrant Eastern European workers did what they have traditionally done and returned home to spend time with their families over the festive season. For various cultural and religious reasons, this means people leave the UK as early as November and return well into February. The Orthodox celebration of Christmas in Romania, for example, begins on 14 November with the Nativity Fast. This year, with a second spike of COVID-19 infections shutting down vast areas of Europe, the reasons for leaving early were multiplied. Loved ones had not been seen for longer periods than usual and the opportunities to travel home looked like they would quickly become more limited.
As Christmas drew nearer, the reasons to rush back to the UK once the holidays were over diminished substantially. London was placed into a stricter lockdown following the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus and additional quarantine rules were introduced for arrivals in the UK.
Unsurprisingly, 2021 began with workers not returning in the numbers the industry needed. This started a steady flow of communication to the Construction News inbox from trade associations and individual contractors, many angrily claiming that the non-return of foreign workers was “because of the grants”. Some of the press releases alleged worse: that migrants had taken up work in other countries while continuing to collect UK taxpayer cash.
The problem with these statements, including some circulated to the media by seemingly respectable organisations, was that none could be backed up with clear evidence. Every publicised claim CN investigated came back to a singular source: hearsay.
“They’re treated as numbers. They are a good workforce for London because they’re very hard workers. But I’m not sure how well looked after they are”Cristina Irimie, Happy People Learning Centre
When CN tried to verify one press release that claimed “many Eastern European workers have cashed in their self-employed allowance and returned to their home countries to sit it out”, the contractor behind it clarified it was actually “rumour” and “something that could happen”. Another said its statements were based on information “from Romanian builders”. Most others we contacted did not respond.
Separate inquiries by CN have unearthed some first-hand evidence that the grants system is indeed being abused by the construction sector. A business owner CN spoke to described in detail how they were approached by three different subcontractors about setting up a cash-in-hand arrangement to work while simultaneously claiming grant money. There is also evidence online of self-employed workers boasting about working and claiming coronavirus support packages.
However, these allegations of wrongdoing are levelled at self-employed British workers just as often as foreign workers.
The casual way in which migrants have been singled out for criticism, without proper verification, is concerning. But it also shows the persistent lack of understanding that exists when it comes to a group of workers the British construction industry has been reliant upon for the past two decades, particularly in London.
This article aims to explain the current situation faced by Eastern European workers and explores the real reasons why they might be reluctant to return to work in the UK.
“[Workers] are staying [away] longer to see what’s around the corner and then want to come back,” says Happy People Learning Centre director Cristina Irimie. She notes that the UK variant of the coronavirus has influenced decisions, given that many construction workers left family behind to come to the UK. “When they think about their families back home, it poses a lot of questions: ‘Can I travel back home?’; ‘What if there’s an emergency in the family?’; ‘Can I go or can’t I?’ All these pieces made them want to [stay at home] for a longer period of time.”
Originally from Romania, Irimie relocated to London 21 years ago. Her business aims to help workers inside and outside the UK gain the qualifications needed to work on British sites. She says another reason why Eastern European workers aren’t currently rushing back to fill labour gaps is the way they tend to be treated on some projects.
“They’re treated as numbers,” Irimie says. “They are a good workforce for London because they’re very hard workers. But I’m not sure how well looked after they are.”
Irimie has seen many examples of the UK industry failing to invest in the skills of Eastern European workers or to build pathways to better-paying positions.
“We see people who are already working in a trade, they want to move up the ladder and have qualifications so that they can request a pay rise. [But] it’s not always convenient for those who pay them to raise their wages.“Companies have got a choice to make about whether the best thing for them is to pay the costs associated with bringing a migrant worker in using the system, or to invest in people domestically”
“[Workers feel] there’s sometimes a lack of appreciation towards the hard work they put into projects. I’ve personally gathered evidence [of that] on some major projects in London. I’ve seen many Eastern Europeans and the quality of their work is very good. But I think they [don’t get] pay [that reflects it].”
Another issue is that Eastern European migrant workers can be treated as if they are a homogenous group by contractors. On sites, gangs of workers are often placed together and there isn’t necessarily the impetus from managers to get to know individuals and develop their talents.
Everyone CN spoke to for a March 2019 article on migrant labour eulogised about the talent level of Eastern European workers. Mace chief executive Mark Reynolds said most migrant workers arrived in the UK “work-ready” at NVQ level 2 standard, equivalent to at least a year’s worth of experience. But, according to Irimie, this appreciation of skilful tradespeople often strays into a stereotyping of all Eastern Europeans as older migrants who are only interested in a transactional relationship. Profiling workers in this way means contractors fail to capitalise on their own workforce’s potential.
“With Romanian construction workers, there’s a lot of young ones who followed the steps of other members of the family; they had brothers or relatives [who came to work in the UK] so they came here very young. [Often you find] they start off as a labourer, they learn a trade and that’s where they stop, although their skills could be developed [further].
“[I] look at them and think, you’re young, your English is good, you could go and look at other possibilities or you could become a supervisor. But they’re not [given the chance because] there’s a lack of integration.”
Nevertheless, Irimie is convinced a large proportion of the migrant workforce will return once conditions improve. She says she knows of people who have considered finding employment domestically, in Eastern European countries, but who prefer the way British construction works.
“Some of them tried, to see if they can be accommodated back home, and the general answer is no. They don’t want to move back [home] permanently.”
The other elephant in the room when it comes to Eastern European migrant workers is the changing of the immigration system, introduced on 1 January 2021. Research, conducted by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) shortly before the measures came in found employers were confused by the new points-based system and concerned about the costs. Only one in 10 of the 300 construction employers quizzed by CITB said they understood the changes, with 39 per cent stating they were unaware of them at all.
Despite the new regulations now enshrined in law, CITB director of policy Steve Radley says work needs to be done to educate firms about how the system works: “[We need to] work closely with the Home Office to make sure all employers understand the new system [and] how it works.
“If it is the right option for them, they [need to be] clued up on it [so] they can use it well. There’s also ongoing discussions to see whether there are ways [to] reduce the level of bureaucracy.”
However, the CITB policy boss believes there is a more fundamental question contractors will have to answer.
“Companies have got a choice to make about whether the best thing for them is to pay the costs associated with bringing a migrant worker in using the system, or to invest in people domestically.
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