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Free Movement

Maddie Grounds of the Immigration Advice Service asks how will the Government’s immigration vision impact the UK construction industry?

It has been over two and half years since the UK voted to leave the European Union. Yet, the future of what the ‘Leave’ vote will actually entail for our country remains vague and unsettling. So far, 2019 has marked moments of intense political chaos after Theresa May’s White Paper failed to secure the support needed to go ahead with her Brexit plans. Consequently, the chance of crashing out of the EU with no deal continues to creep closer. For UK industries, including the construction sector, this is an option they simply cannot afford to take.

One of the most significant changes to occur after we withdraw from the EU is the end to free movement. Current EU prioritisation allows migrants to cross UK-EU borders to work in the UK without the need to apply for visas. Comparatively, a Brexit Britain will see the requirement of EU workers to apply for a Tier 2 Visa, being obliged to meet strict or even unattainable conditions of salary thresholds before they can continue or begin their employment routes in the UK.

Taking the Tier 2 route is only possible if migrant workers meet the minimum income threshold of £30,000. For the construction industry, this comes as a rigid barrier for many ‘low-skilled’ workers whose salaries will fail to meet this threshold, despite their fundamental value within the sector. Furthermore, with construction workers not being on the Shortage Occupation List, the government has little interest in retaining this talent pool. The irony is, that after Brexit, the lack of prioritisation for these workers will lead to severe occupational shortages.

A Confederation of British Industry (CBI) report released last year should have prompted the government to rethink their Brexit immigration policies after it revealed the importance of EU talent for several of Britain’s key industries. Currently, workers from outside the UK make up 15 per cent of the construction workforce, working out as more than one in eight. Half of these are from the EU. In fact, in certain areas, international talent is highly concentrated, particularly in London where 50 per cent of the workforce is from overseas.

Consolidating the concerns of a huge EU worker deficit is the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), who have suggested that the UK construction industry could lose 200,000 EU workers post-Brexit, equating to approximately eight per cent of its total workforce As an industry that contributed £113 billion to the UK economy (six per cent of the total) in 2017, huge gaps in the current EU talent pool will hinder the industry’s ability to maintain its productivity and financial success.

Yet, the complexity of the visa process doesn’t just reside with workers, instead additionally obliging employers to go through a series of procedures so they can officially ‘sponsor’ and bring over a migrant worker. To do this, employers must fill out a Sponsor Licence application. Once they are a legally licence sponsor, employers are able to set up advertisements and offer jobs to international talent. However, with a pricey fee and a complicated procedure, filling a position can be impeded by lengthy delays and resource complications for companies and businesses.

Offering a ‘solution’ to the Brexit impact on low-skilled workers, Theresa May’s White Paper sets out plans to enable migrants to work in the UK on a temporary 12-month visa – a scheme which will run until at least 2025. As it is only temporary, this measure fails to offer any certainty over the long-term effects that the end of free movement will have on low-skilled workers and may not even be implemented in the event of a no-deal. By no means is the temporary visa attractive: migrants in the UK for one year do not have any entitlements or rights to extend their stay, switch visas, bring their family or seek permanent settlement.

Issues of free movement and tighter border controls will further disrupt the construction industry’s reliance on mobility required by temporary workers and contractors. Unless a practical deal is implemented, HGV drivers and other transport workers will face severe delays in crossing borders, having a subsequent negative effect on the transport of key building materials.

A no-deal Brexit may also bring severe setbacks to the UK’s current construction projects such as the Heathrow Expansion and HS2. Tighter border regulations could cause major hold-ups for workers required to travel from the EU or could even be a deterrent from working on the projects at all. Additionally, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Investment Fund (EIF) invested £5.98 billion into infrastructure projects in 2015. Leaving the EU without a deal could see the end to these vital financial boosts.

What’s more, the uncertainty of trade in a no-deal scenario only adds to the concerns of those in the construction industry. Research by Build UK found that £10 billion worth of construction products are imported from the EU every year. Without a strong UK-EU relationship, Britain faces losing its recognition of trading certificates and instead being subject to a new ‘third country status’. This could cause major barriers to the government’s targets of building 300,000 home every day if the materials and workforce simply aren’t there to build them.

Although domestic trade will be a suitable solution in some cases, there are materials such as timber which require overseas exportation to meet the UK’s demands. A weaker pound will result in rising costs of imported materials unless a deal with the EU is hastily agreed.

Brexit is now just around the corner, making it difficult for industries like the FM and construction sector to hold onto any assurance over what the future brings. Establishing a workable deal and maintaining a strong relationship with the EU is imperative if the UK is to retain its global status. Crashing out of the EU without a deal and losing the importance of EU talent cannot be an option.

The Immigration Advice Service is an organisation of UK Immigration Solicitors who distribute legal advice on Brexit and immigration-related matters. https://iasservices.org.uk/

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