UK firms in talks with EU counterparts ahead of HSE crackdown on migrant worker safety

M&E companies are in secret talks to establish a compulsory system of screening migrant workers for drugs and alcohol abuse as well as competency before they enter the UK.

The proposals, being developed by UK electrical trade bodies, involve vetting workers in their country of origin.

Only workers who pass the screening will be deemed legitimate labour in the UK, in a move designed to crack down on thousands of cheap, unqualified migrant workers currently flooding the sector.

It is understood that representatives from the UK bodies – including the Electrical Contractors Association and the Heating and Ventilating Contractors Association – have also met labour agencies to thrash out how the system could be implemented with their co-operation.

Labour agencies are the biggest recruiters of migrant labour in the UK.

A senior source involved in the talks said: “In terms of migrant workers, we are currently faced with an unstructured system and we are looking at ways of providing a more credible approach.”

The source added that similar measures could also be used for UK labour signing up to the agencies in a bid to regulate the sector and clean up its image.

He said: “The system does not uniquely have to be applied to migrants.”

Alex Meikle, head of employee relations at the ECA, said: “The intention here is to ensure that UK skills standards will be maintained along with benchmarked Joint Industry Board rates of pay.”

The move follows increasing anxiety over the exploitation of migrant workers and their suitability for work on UK sites.

Earlier this month, the HSE revealed it was planning a crackdown on migrant workers amid concern over the number of accidents involving immigrant labour. Migrant workers account for one-third of all fatalities in UK construction, which kills more than 70 people a year.

n The ECA and union Amicus are in high-level discussions to overhaul industry rules on agency labour. The organisations are understood to be considering replacing JIB rule 17.2, which sets out conditions under which agency labour can be used on site, with measures to offer all workers direct employment. This would greatly reduce agency labour.

The news emerged as the current system of agency working was put under further pressure after the Court of Appeal upheld a decision to strip Gabem, one of construction’s biggest composite companies, of its right to be paid gross of tax. The verdict means agencies will no longer be able to offer workers huge tax savings by using Gabem’s accountancy services, greatly reducing the appeal of composite companies. Gabem said it would continue operations despite short-term cash flow pressures.