The employment of migrant labour has been a problematic issue for construction for a long time


Migrant labour was a difficult issue for construction long before the crowded camps in Calais brought the subject of immigration to the front of national and political consciousness.

The nature of this industry, with its need for transient labour forces that move around to wherever the work is and, in recent decades, construction’s boom and bust swing between acute skills shortages and widespread redundancies, means that migrant workers are an obvious go-to resource for contractors in particular. But the multi-layered structure of the sector means that, even where companies believe that their migrant workforce is employed legally, this is very difficult to verify or police down their supply chains.

The employment of illegal migrant labour - whether knowingly or not - creates a host of problems: from moral issues around the treatment of workers, to safety concerns on site, to legal repercussions. Even those migrant workers employed legally have been the cause of controversy, with union allegations of foreign workers undercutting UK pay agreements giving rise to protests during recession.

In recent years, however, the question of how to reliably police the use of migrant labour will have been just a background issue for many contractors, as they battled first to keep businesses afloat during recession, and then scrambled to secure the skills they needed to keep up in a recovering market.

Several sources admitted to Building this week that they do not consistently conduct checks down their supply chain. And this lack of awareness about exactly who is working on their sites is likely to be far more common than most contractors would like to admit in public.

The UK is not Qatar, with the inescapable sight of migrant labour camps where workers sleep six to a room. Many of the workers at risk of exploitation in the UK are not just hidden from the public’s gaze but also remain unidentified by the cursory documentation checks some companies conduct.

The pressure to conduct thorough checks on workers has simply not been there. That looks set to change

And unless you are working on a project which has plenty of public attention, like the Olympics, the pressure to conduct thorough checks on workers has simply not been there.

Now that looks set to change. The government’s decision to target construction sites - along with the cleaning and care sectors - in its crackdown on illegal migrant labour means that the threat of repercussions against firms which fail to carry out proper checks is becoming much more real.

Existing punishments for those employing illegal migrants - ranging from fines, to site closures, to imprisonment - are now more likely to be enforced. And additional measures could be introduced – which could mean more regulation for the sector and more penalties for not complying.

Companies have always had a moral obligation to make sure their workforce is employed legally and the horror stories that occasionally surface, of exploited workers in appalling conditions, underline the responsibility that businesses have towards these vulnerable people.

But for those firms that, amid other pressures, adopted a “see no evil” approach, the increased legal and business risk that looks set to come with the Home Office crackdown adds a pressing imperative to look harder and ensure regular, thorough checks are carried out on their own workforce and those of their supply chains. Such checks should arguably even be incorporated into contracts from the outset.

Businesses now have a clear choice. They can put these measures in place themselves - and safely be able to turn to the migrant labour they will inevitably need to compete in the rising market - or wait for government to impose strict new measures because the industry can’t be trusted to police itself. By which point, those firms that have failed to act may already have felt the effects of the crackdown.

Sarah Richardson, editor