The Government and other party leaders have praised the contribution that cleaners and other low paid workers such as security guards are playing in helping to tackle the Coronavirus. But there is yet no indication how FM suppliers will maintain staffing levels in the long term if plans regarding immigration go forward. Once we emerge from this crisis what can the FM industry do to retain and recruit operational staff?
Before the Coronavirus crisis, the FM sector was very healthy, having posted strong growth for years. But, like the rest of the economy it will struggle to recover from the effects of the pandemic and the Government’s lockdown. One of the biggest threats to this recovery are the Government’s new immigration rules, which could come into effect after December 31st.
If implemented, they would cut off the supply of lower skilled migrant workers that some parts of the FM business depend, dealing those businesses a second blow within months. These new rules would affect tens of thousands of people within the FM sector and in particular cleaning operatives, security and catering staff, porters and many others. It will be extremely difficult and highly unlikely that we will be able to replace all these workers from UK-based citizens, with the result being that roles will remain unfilled or pay rates will have to be increased, which in turn will raise costs and put pressure on businesses and building owners.
To mitigate these costs business will look to reschedule tasks and prioritise and, ultimately, review the number of staff. FM contract organisations will once again have pressure applied to their margins and in this sector, margins are so low that they will not withstand any other reductions in percentage returns. Most will resist and reshape but it is inevitable that some could gamble with lower margins for revenue growth and will put themselves at risk of following the ‘Carillion’ route.
If roles do remain unfilled then services and standards will fall and the health and safety of people will be compromised. The irony that we are asking lower skilled migrant staff to significantly assist in helping us to battle against the current Coronavirus concern whilst accepting that they would potentially not be allowed entry in 2021 if the current plans go ahead, should not be lost on everyone and especially within Government.
Unhygienic buildings, poor food standards and lower security standards could be the result and we fear for the future of FM. And in respect of our visitors, grubby hotels, could, in turn, discourage tourists from visiting the UK. The British Cleaning Council is very concerned. Over the coming months, we’ll be talking with our partners within the FM sector and representing the voice of the industry to Government and doing our utmost to make sure the professionalism and high standards of the FM sector is not undermined by these plans.
We will combine to force the Government to rethink their immigration strategy. We do not want to see low wages, but we do want to encourage the raising of skills in the sector and the creation of more opportunities for people to prosper and grow. To do this we do need to have the facility for low entry particularly in the skills side. We can then focus on the development of our people to ensure we have an abundance of the supervisors and managers for the next generation. Without a rethink certain parts of the FM sector will certainly struggle going forward.
We live in extraordinary times. The enormity of the economic ramifications of COVID-19 (coronavirus) are yet to be understood. Markets, not least labour markets, are at its mercy. Adjusting to the ‘new normal’ – whatever that is – in the short and longer term is a national preoccupation. No business will be unscathed. Prior to the outbreak, the Office for National Statistics reported 8.48 million people in the UK as economically inactive (16 to 64-year olds). A cohort the Government wants businesses to invest in, up-skilling them through training and other measures: an admirable aim, albeit secondary to COVID-19.
The need for employers, including those in the security and facilities sector, to engage with this ‘disaffected’ demographic is arguably even more important now as the fabric of society is threatened by COVID-19 with a real risk of unemployment, underemployment as well as swelling numbers of the economically inactive. An opportunity arising from the immediate crisis, may be to actively embrace options that enable people of all ages to learn new skills, not least in fire safety, security and facilities.
NSI currently supports initiatives to raise standards of labour competency on a number of levels. It has actively sponsored the Engineers of Tomorrow (EoT) initiative, for example, for more than 20 years. NSI was a founding stakeholder in EoT, which is designed to recognise and showcase the next generation of security and fire systems installers across the UK.
Within the Security and Events sector, NSI launched its Code of Practice (NCP 119) for the Provision of Labour on 1st April this year. The long-term aim is to assist the sector to up its game in the interest of buyers, the public it serves, and the security officers it employs.
Through the good example of NSI approved companies procuring additional labour and demonstrably ensuring their providers adopt best practice, NSI approval will signal to buyers where they can buy responsibly and with assurance of the service on offer.
When it comes to on-boarding workers on labour provider or agency lists – screening, training, deploying – and paying them, NSI approved labour providers can signal they operate as responsible employers in all respects.
Of course, demand for staff influences pay levels in any market and at the February 2020 Security Industry ‘Thought Leadership Summit’, this topic was addressed by speaker Sebastian Bachelier from the Living Wage Foundation. Asking the question ‘Why pay a Real Living Wage: benefits and implications for the security sector’, he noted that the independently calculated and voluntary Real Living Wage (as distinct from the statutory Minimum Wage for under-25s and the National Living Wage for over-25s) is the only rate based on the real cost of living. It offers a range of benefits to workers and employers alike, and by implication the buyers of services.
The challenge of the COVID-19 crisis will pre-occupy everyone in business, in the private and public sectors, for longer than anyone imagined. Yet, engaging economically inactive adults in a positive way is key to strengthen the social fabric, delivering self esteem, and in reality a potentially great asset for our industry. Building a sustainable labour pool – through a combination of training, valid career paths and sound employment practices – is one which some in the professional security and facilities sector are already leading the way in, even in the midst of crisis, as the economy and society transition to the ‘new normal’.