Before we rush into legislation to protect foreign workers, let’s look at the facts, says Stephen Ratcliffe: the vast majority are highly skilled and unlikely ever to be exploited

There has been a good deal of noise in recent weeks on immigration and the number of jobs being taken up by foreign nationals. More recently, the unions have suggested that foreign workers in construction are vulnerable both from a health and safety perspective and because their terms and conditions are less generous than those of indigenous workers. Hence their campaign for gangmaster licensing to be extended into construction.

This is an emotive subject and some commentators appear to be getting carried away with their own rhetoric while losing sight of the facts. So, let’s look at the facts.

There is no doubt that there has been a huge influx of foreign workers into construction, especially from the EU. As the construction economy has grown by more than a third in the past decade, requiring 87,000 new recruits a year, this is not surprising. Indeed, the industry has always attracted a mobile workforce – we sucked in Irish migrants in the sixties and seventies and many British workers went to West Germany in the eighties.

Nobody has precise figures, but it’s believed that about 6% of the construction industry’s workforce is of non-UK origin, with significant regional variations. London and the South-east attract the most foreign workers. And many are legitimately self-employed.

Are they taking British jobs? No. The Construction Confederation’s latest trend survey shows plenty of vacancies in the craft trades and in project management.

Construction is highly regulated, and is as much about protecting foreign workers as our directly employed workforce

Are they vulnerable to health and safety risks and to exploitation? Not at all. Most are well trained and competent. The Health and Safety Executive’s own statistics show that migrant workers are at no greater risk than indigenous workers. That is not to say we don’t have to manage the risk. They still require CSCS cards to work on sites, and need to be properly inducted. That is why the Construction Confederation has produced a site induction DVD in 10 languages.

Are they being exploited? There have been stories that, as gangmaster licensing has taken force in shell-fishing, agriculture and food processing, there has been a shift in agency labour towards construction. We have yet to see hard evidence of this. It is worth remembering that agency labour in construction is less than 3% of the workforce, and that we are recruiting skilled labourers who by and large know their own worth.

Contrary to popular belief, construction is already highly regulated. The Health and Safety at Work Act and the new CDM regulations are as much about protecting foreign workers and self-employed craftsmen as our directly employed workforce. The new construction industry tax scheme is about making sure our workforce has the correct employment status and will help stamp out the bogus self-employed. And the industry’s own self-regulation on a competent workforce is raising the barrier to entry. So when John Hutton, the business secretary, told the TUC conference that there was no case for introducing gangmaster licensing in construction, he was spot on.

The rhetoric does, however, hide a problem – should we be so reliant on foreign labour that could easily up sticks and move on as the economy of mainland Europe takes off? There is a case for looking at redressing the balance towards more local apprenticeships, but not one for suggesting we are exploiting vulnerable workers as a short-term fix to providing labour in a buoyant market.