The construction industry must brush up on its social skills and welcome its ever-expanding foreign workforce – a larger pool of labour is vital to its success

“Gefahr! Aufstellungsortsicherheit muß ständig beobachtet werden.”

Don’t understand? It’s hardly surprising.

But health and safety notices often mean as much to foreign workers as that sentence did to you. What was I actually saying? “Danger! Site safety must be observed at all times.”

One year on from the enlargement of the European Union to include 10 new member states, the UK has an almighty challenge on its hands. Faced with a growing skills shortage, Europe has become an invaluable pool of labour, and is assisting UK industry to meet government targets. The contribution that these workers are making to the UK construction industry, and consequently to the economy, should not be underestimated. Of the 133,000 immigrants who have come to Britain from the new member states, 21 are claiming the dole. The other 132,979 have joined the ranks of foreign workers in Britain. These could now make up about one-tenth of the construction workforce. But what are they finding when they get here? And how is UK construction responding to the change?

The outlook is mixed. The opening up of European and international trading laws presents a new dawn for the UK construction industry. We are no longer the insular trading platform that we once were, and the advancements that this industry has made in best practice over recent years will need to increase twofold if we are to keep up with our international counterparts. As we open our doors to skilled labour, the best-practice that large parts of our industry have worked so hard to adopt must not fall by the wayside.

A larger source of labour brings with it the need for tighter controls and, although large pockets of the industry are making a concerted effort to measure and benchmark progress and ultimately improve health and safety, a recent European directive was close to jeopardising this (see Building, 18 March, page 26). The directive introduced the“country of origin principle” to services, which would mean that the state responsible for setting health and safety rules would be the one in which a company was based rather than the one in which it was working. So, if a foreign firm asked workers in the UK to risk their lives on unsafe scaffolding, the Health and Safety Executive would not be able to do anything about it. This is taking international competition too far – in reality, forcing firms to drag down standards to match the weakest firms on a lowest cost basis.

Of the 133,000 immigrants from the new EU states, 21 are claiming the dole. The other 132,979 have joined Britain’s foreign workers

At Constructing Excellence our vision for the industry is simple: to see the UK become a world leader in collaboration, competitiveness and productivity. This will only be achieved through a continued and committed investment in the workforce, no matter what its background, origin or sex. Foreign workers play a vital role in construction but at present they are being exploited. Pay, working conditions and health and safety are all major concerns. We must ensure that all workers are CSCS-registered and that language support is provided to those who have a poor grasp of English. In an industry that is fighting hard to improve its health and safety levels, these adjustments will prove critical.

It is vital to benchmark progress and quantitatively assess achievements; that will allow us to build on last year’s key performance indicator results. These showed that people management was superior on those projects that had embraced best-practice principles. We will only get behavioural change as a result of good leadership and management. Rather than relying on enforcement, we need handfuls of people who are natural pollinators – those who like to pass along knowledge – and “salesmen”, who are adept at persuading the unenlightened.

Foreign workers are, more than ever, a vital part of our industry and supply chain. It is only through endorsing this and working collaboratively that we will continue to see the benefits of an integrated supply chain. This attitude and approach must be applied not just to foreign workers but across the board. Women too are an undervalued, underused source of labour and it is only through projects such as that of Derwent Builds that this will be combated. This scheme is part of the Housing Forum’s Sustainable Training for Sustainable Communities Initiative, and it half of the trainees it has taken on are women.

As international competition increases, and government targets draw nearer, it is essential that we embrace every avenue of skilled resource that is open to us. This is not about “doing things on the cheap” or about rejecting the existing workforce, but rather about moving forward to make the most of the qualities and experience that different groups have to offer. By pooling these resources, and driving best practice forward in a regulated and collaborative fashion, we can only succeed. To refuse change is, after all, to stand still.

Dennis Lenard is chief executive of Constructing Excellence