These days, Britain's skills shortage is so severe that our contractors are happy to employ workers from all over the world. But what do they think of working with us? We went to Paternoster Square in the City of London to find out.
A St George flag hangs from the scaffolding. Next to it, an Italian site manager shouts instructions at his workers while a Hungarian cladding fixer is having a job explained to him in German. This is a typical day at Stanhope's Paternoster Square site by St Paul's Cathedral, where 300 of the 1000 operatives have come from overseas to work. A further 180 are working for overseas contractors on this spectacular City square.
The multinational taskforce is tackling the final building on the square – the Warwick Court block that will house investment bank Goldman Sachs – and right now the atmosphere is frantic, with only days left to the handover deadline. A few of the workers have found the time to meet Building and tell us what their experiences have been of working on British sites with British workers, but one or two keep looking at their watches, and our discussion is punctuated by ringing mobile phones. "I'm sorry," says Severio Passetto, an Italian site manager. "We've been really busy – I've worked every Sunday for the past few weeks."
Of the five men, two are Italian, one Hungarian, one Zimbabwean and one German–Irish. Their jobs range from site manager to air-conditioning labourer, and all of them have years of experience in their trade or diplomas from technical colleges. Some have been pulled into Britain by the skills vacuum, while others, like 23-year-old Fazil Patel from Zimbabwe, have come to escape atrocities at home. Others have just drifted into their jobs, like architecture student Stefan Toth, a Berliner who is working as a logistics supervisor.
Most of the men are bilingual but a few have no English. This makes a group conversation difficult, and leads to awkward silences while questions are translated. Is this a problem on site?
"Actually, no," Janos Tatkos, a huge bear-like cladding fixer from Hungary says through Toth, who has offered to translate. "I'm a craftsman and so I just need a diagram to work from. I'm employed by a German company and so I can ask any questions I have in German."
Tito Gaetani, a 30-year-old Sicilian mason who moved to the UK after marrying a British woman, agrees: "It was a little difficult at first because I didn't have much time to go to learn English at a school here. On site it was OK, though – people tried to give me a hand."
Fazil Patel, who is working as a labourer having studied air-conditioning at technical college in Zimbabwe, has a British grandfather and speaks English fluently. He particularly enjoys the social aspect at Paternoster: "The English are the most friendly of all the nationalities on the site. They take to time to speak to you. They're interested in what you have to say."
This hospitality does not seem to extend to everyone, though – especially if you're German. Toth has stopped telling other workers he is from Berlin and now tells them he is half-Irish. This does not seem to have helped – he's still subject to anti-German jibes. Janos Tatkas, has experienced the same problem: "When people find out I'm Hungarian, not German, they are much friendlier."
There is some common ground on the site. One thing all the workers agree on is the tough safety standards on British sites.
Toth tells me: "In Germany we never had an induction, a safety video or anything. Here we have much more. We also have health checks before we join the company." Patel joins in:
"English sites care about us a lot more, and our safety. We have two safety briefings a week."
All the men take a pride in the work they do. Toth, who studied architecture at South Bank University and the University of North London, says: "I won't go back into architecture. I wanted to find out what it really meant to work on the floor. I have now. As an individual, it's what you make of it. It's knowing that you can go home and say: 'I've tried today.' I like that."
So what do they plan to do after Paternoster has finished? Here again, there is common ground. "I want to carry on travelling," Patel says. "I wanted to go to New Zealand before I came here, and now I have some money I might be able to do that." Toth nods:
"I'd like to travel too – there's so much I want to see." Gaetani, who has been quiet for much of the interview, speaks up: "When I came to the UK I was only going to stay for five or six months. Living in London can be really lonely. One day I'll go back to Italy – that's my dream."
Peter Rogers, director of Stanhope and the chairman of the strategic forum, offers some historical perspective on the movement of craftsmen. "There's been a historical tradition of craftsmen moving around Europe to work," he says. "We've always been inherently short of trained skills in this country, so we need these people. And they have good skills. They're often more specialised than ours."
Rogers acknowledges that there can sometimes be problems with a site being such a melting pot, but believes that overseas workers make a positive contribution: "There's always teasing, but building sites are pretty broad-minded places. A lot of work has been put into making them like that."
Severio Pasetto, 33 Site manager from Verona, Italy
I’ve been here since April last year. I was planning to come to London to improve my English and I asked a glass structure specialist firm I used to work for in Rimini – Focchi – if they had any part-time work. Instead they offered me a full-time job. It was really a lucky break. I’d come to the UK to spend money, but now I’m making it. London is a good city and we have quite a friendly environment on site. The fact that I’m foreign makes no difference to anyone. We play jokes on each other but we respect each other. It really is a very multi-ethnic site – there are people from the Far East, Africa and Australia. At the beginning it was more difficult. The first six weeks or so it was a steep learning curve. I had studied English for quite a while. I had a good grounding. I found settling in quite easy – I had great support from my company. It tries to make you feel comfy. There’s five Italians over here with Focchi and we’re all quite close, so we all go out together. It’s great living in London – I love discovering new parts of the city. Of course you have St Paul’s and Westminster and all that, but I love the little squares. I like places off the beaten track like Hampstead. I won’t stay here permanently, though. I miss my family, although they always knew I wanted to travel. At first I went home every second weekend. With the war they’re not very happy about me being here. It’s normally a long day. We’re quite busy – especially now we’re getting to the end. I get here at 8am and leave between 6.30 and 7pm. I love my job. I have to co-ordinate subcontractors, deal with problems on the site – there’s always preparation to make for the next day. Sometimes you get stressed but it’s OK. It’s the best site I’ve worked on. The rules are easier in Italy. They are more rigid in the UK – particularly the safety and technical aspects. I was the first of my company on site and I’ll probably be the last to leave. I’m proud of what I’ve done here.
Stefan Toth, 31 Logistics supervisor from Germany
In Germany we never had an induction, a safety video or anything. Here we have much more. We also have health checks before we join the company.
Tito Gaetani, 30 Mason from Italy
It was a little difficult at first because I didn’t have much time to go to learn English at a school here. On site it was OK, though – people tried to give me a hand.
Janos Takaks, 50 Cladding fixer from Budapest
Before I came here I was in Germany for 10 years with the same company I’m with now. England is a special place; I always wanted to come here. I come from the eastern side of Europe and England is held in special respect there. It is something special. We have always known or heard good things of England. Every second month I go home to see my family. I miss them very much. Hungary will enter the European Union in 2004 and then I will be able to fly home every month. Being here or in Germany is the same. I don’t want to stay – my home is in Hungary. I have two children and a wife and by working here I am providing for them. Both of my kids are at university so it’s quite expensive. I’m hoping to get enough money to give my kids a good start in life – something I never had. My wife agrees with my working here; I earn much more than at home. If she got fed up and wanted me to come home, I would. I’m quite tired of travelling around. I will follow the flow of jobs to provide for my family but after a while I will go home because it is very hard work. I only have a two-year work permit, which runs out at the end of the year. It is hard without English. It’s not so difficult at work because there are Germans I can talk to, but it is difficult off-site to buy a paper or make polite conversation. I have very little contact with English people. I’ve got no particular views on the English as a whole – you can’t generalise – there will always be the oddballs. As a foreigner you need to adapt to a culture. I have a pride in my work – you can always walk by and say, “that is what I have done – I have contributed”. If you stop being proud of what you do you lose interest in your job. I want to carry on as long as people who are not involved in the building industry can look at something I’ve worked on and say “that’s nice”.
Fazil Patel, 23 Labourer from Zimbabwe
The English are the most friendly of all the nationalities on the site. They take to time to speak to you. They’re interested in what you have to say.