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Home thoughts from abroad: Immigration

‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’

In my first blog of this series, I related my summer of ‘travelling the world’ through the pages of a book: Work and Labor Relations in Construction: An International Perspective

This week, drawing once again on Work and Labor Relations, I cover the impact increased levels of immigration from other parts of the world have had on the construction industries of rich countries since the 1990s. 

The Statue of Liberty quotation above captures our current predicament; the scale of global labour migration during the past 30 years has far exceeded any historical precedents.

The ‘push’ factors which contributed to this worldwide migration trend are well known. Easier international travel, plus legislative and administrative reforms in support of ‘globalization’, had the effect of lowering previous barriers to free movement. 

The scale of global labour migration during the past 30 years has far exceeded any historical precedents

Meanwhile, large geographical disparities in wealth – further accentuated by crises, including the collapse of the former Soviet bloc – pushed many workers to make good use of their new freedoms by migrating.

If these developments explain the ‘push’ to migrate, what then were the ‘pull’ factors which drove demand for migrant workers from the construction industries in these richer countries? And what impact did immigration have on these countries’ construction employment and skills systems?

The answers, according to Work and Labor Relations, depend largely on whether the employment and skills system in question originally aligned with a ‘high-road’ or a ‘low-road’ approach – as described in my last blog.

Until the 1990s, local laws and institutions in countries such as Germany, Scandinavia and Benelux helped preserve a level playing field based on ‘high-road’ practices. These included strong support for direct employment and heavy investment in skills development – resulting in a fully trained, productive and functionally flexible domestic workforce. 

We must also end the UK’s unfortunate habit of quick-fixes and siloed thinking

These protections began to come under pressure with the advent of increased access to workers from overseas and other liberalising measures, most notably the roll-out and expansion of the EU’s Single Market.

Scenting an opportunity to escape the costs and other constraints of local ‘high road’ systems, some industry clients started to engage main contractors from new, lower-income member states, such as Poland, the Czech Republic and the Balkans. These main contractors inevitably brought in subcontractors and workforces from their home regions. In time, new competitive pressures drove many local contractors to follow suit.

For ‘high-road’ industries, therefore, the advent of lower paid, often lower skilled workers from abroad largely went against the grain of their existing employment and skills systems, and with potentially disruptive – although not yet fatal – effects.

By contrast, large-scale labour migration mostly went with the grain of ‘low-road’ systems such as those of post-Soviet Russia and the UK. Here, workforce training, skill levels and productivity were already comparatively low, and domestic regulation of employment and occupational competence standards generally weak.

In this context, the ‘pull’ factor was mainly a need to keep workforce numbers up, given the inability of a system based on minimising investment in employing and training people to do this for itself.

The industry needs a better understanding of employment and skills as a complex system

How does this short global history lesson help us understand where we in the UK find ourselves today?

First off, the UK’s migration merry-go-round has come to a shuddering halt – initially with the 2016 EU referendum and finally, this year, with the imposition of a new, more restrictive post-Brexit immigration regime.

Predictably, this has given rise to complaints of construction skills shortages – a risk further aggravated, by large numbers of EU migrants returning home during the COVID crisis.

Assuming the Home Office does not give in to pleas for the immigration tap to be turned back on – or does so only as a temporary measure – it seems the wider UK construction industry will eventually have no option but to acknowledge the unsustainability of its ‘low-road’ model in a post-Brexit world.

Equally, greater attention will need to be paid to rebuilding industry’s capacity to employ and train our own people properly.

To a degree, this is already happening, albeit in a mostly stop-start, reactive and disjointed way.

Greater attention will need to be paid to rebuilding industry’s capacity to employ and train our own people properly

For my money, another important part of UK construction transforming itself must be an end to parochialism.  The industry needs a greater willingness to learn from the ‘high-road’ systems still operating quite successfully – despite recent disruptions – close to our own shores.

We must also end the UK’s unfortunate habit of quick-fixes and siloed thinking. The industry needs a better understanding of employment and skills as a complex system that only works when various interconnected and interdependent elements are all properly aligned.

I will explore this subject in my next holiday blog, on skills.