Last May, the European Union took on 10 new states, including eastern European countries whose high-quality workers were seen as the solution to the UK’s labour shortages.

Sebastian Lorek
Sebastian Lorek

It is just over a year since the European Union expanded to take in 10 additional nation states, including Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic. At the time, skills minister Ivan Lewis told Building that workers travelling to the UK from these countries would play a key role in stemming the UK construction industry’s chronic skills shortage. The likes of Sebastian Lorek (pictured) and Andrius Petrauskas (right) would help to make up the 86,000 additional workers needed every 12 months for five years if the sector was to meet client demands.

The early signs are that Lewis could be right: there has been a slight easing in the skills crisis and this seems to be associated with EU expansion. In the Construction Products Association’s first quarter survey for 2005, only 10% of contractors reported that they had been held back from bidding for work by lack of staff. In May 2003, shortages were pushing wage rates for traditional trades up by as much as 20% a year.

The hard evidence is that 5070 workers from the accession states entered the industry between May and December last year, accounting for 13% of all new construction workers in 2004 as a whole. An indication of how important this group has become is that last week CITB–ConstructionSkills held a workshop, attended by delegates from bodies such as the Home Office and the Major Contractors Group, to address the inevitable health and safety and skills problems that language barriers and differing education standards throw up.

As Andrew Gay, chairman of regional contractor Warings, puts it: “The extra workers have been especially noticed in the cities and they have been beneficial as we have got such a skills shortage, but you have to be careful as some people are just learning on the job.”

What the figures suggest

Construction has proved a popular choice of work with new EU citizens looking to relocate to the UK. The Home Office’s figures, which break the economy into 22 sectors, show that construction was the eighth most popular industry for these immigrants. It had more entrants than the leisure and entertainment industries and was only marginally less popular than retail.

So, it’s clear that the industry has a large pool of fresh labour to choose from. In effect, they have replaced another immigrant labour force. Roger Feast, chairman of contractor McLaren, says: “Where once we used to have lots of Irish workers, who returned to their own country when the economy there became more buoyant, we are now benefiting from lots of eastern Europeans.”

Feast argues that they are attracted to the industry because of pay, an opinion supported by the case study on the left. This tells the story of Sebastian Lorek, a 27-year-old from Krakow in Poland, now working as a scaffolder at a London-based contractor that turns over £30m a year. He says: “It’s common knowledge among young men where I’m from that if you want a well-paid job you come to England and get a job in construction.”

The industry needs immigrants like me because there aren’t enough people in England who want to do the work. We aren’t stealing anyone’s jobs

Sebastian Lorek

It is also an industry where few skills are required at site level. The increasingly well-educated British workforce is producing fewer and fewer labourers, but that work is ideal for east Europeans who are prevented initially from taking on skilled jobs by their lack of English. This is backed up by Home Office statistics, which show that 40% of the workers that started work in construction in the months immediately following EU expansion came in as labourers.

As Lorek says: “The industry needs immigrants like me because there aren’t enough people in England who want to do the work. We aren’t stealing anyone’s jobs.”

The evidence suggests that half of EU immigrants working in construction have settled in the hot-spots of London, the South and the South-east; 1175 are working in the capital alone. One-tenth of the 300 employees that contractor ROK took on last year were from eastern Europe and its chief executive, Garvis Snook, has noticed the pattern: “We’ve certainly seen a rise in the number of eastern European E E workers on our London and South-east sites. In fact, last year we recruited a team of 15 underpinners from Poland to work on a site in Crawley to meet our needs.”

What the figures don’t show

The problem with the Home Office’s statistics is that many of the workers who apparently entered the UK after enlargement were already here.

The figures were compiled from the Workers Registration Scheme, launched in May last year. This allowed people from accession countries – barring Malta and Cyprus, which already had freedom of movement – to work in the UK. About 53,000 of the 133,000 who registered were already here, many of them illegally. The scheme simply legitimised their position and granted certain rights to those who were struggling to get by on a business visa. Des Browne, a former immigration minister, points out that this is a boon to the UK economy since it means that these formerly illegal workers can now pay income tax and National Insurance.

This is all very well, but it suggests that the impact they have made in solving the skills crisis might not be as great as at first thought. The exact number of construction workers already working over here is impossible to tell, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the 40%

figure may be reasonably accurate. Like Lorek, Andrius Petrauskas, the second case study, was here prior to accession, but had also spent half of his time working illegally. The reason was simple: he would have to pay £350 for a business visa and could not afford it. Although he eventually secured the visa, if for any reason he had found himself out-of-work at the time of annual renewal, he would have also risked being told that he could not seek alternative employment. The registration scheme means he can stay here indefinitely.

I had heard from my brother that you could earn six times more working on sites over here than Lithuania

Andrius Petrauskas

The legitimisation of these workers has an additional benefit for legitimate companies in that they can now train their workforce, confident that they are both legal and here for the long-term. This means that the shortage of skilled labour should be addressed over the coming years, as the market in EU labour matures. For example, Petrauskas was a trained electrician in Lithuania, but was unable to use his qualifications in the UK. His English was poor, and even today he feels that his grasp of the language is not good to communicate technical terms effectively. But he became fluent enough to be trained as a banksman, a relatively skilled on-site job.

Integrating into the industry

Last week’s CITB–ConstructionSkills workshop suggests that the construction sector is looking to better integrate this source of skilled labour into the UK industry. It proposed a five-point programme aimed at countering the differing levels of safety knowledge and skills between migrant workers and their UK counterparts.

If implemented, the programme would include screening for English language, a health and safety test, a skills competency test, an overview of the UK construction industry and employment practice and a briefing on technical issues.

Fraser Clement, CITB–ConstructionSkill’s director of skills strategy, says the programme would ensure effective integration. He says: “There are a lot of skilled workers coming over from the accession countries and we need to put support mechanisms in place to ensure the qualifications of the workforce.”

But fears of exploitation remain. Bob Blackman, the T&G union’s construction officer, accuses the industry of being happy to use workers from accession countries to alleviate their skills shortage, but failing to look after them properly in return. He points to health and safety tests as an example, claiming workers are trained to pass them rather than to really understand health and safety principles. He says: “If you recognise that we need EU workers from the accession countries to fill the skills shortage, as most people in the industry now do, then we must take responsibility for them. Some companies are simply doing nothing. They are taking the cosmetic approach: ticking the right boxes to meet legal requirements but not actively doing anything to ensure the welfare of their new workforce.”

In effect there may be contractors taking advantage of the migrants’ nature and economic circumstances. Gregory Zajac is a project manager for a Polish construction company based in north London. He employs 50 Polish workers and confirms that migrants’ work ethic makes them particularly popular with employers: “Polish construction workers have a good reputation in this country, we don’t complain, we’re easy going and we’re trustworthy. That’s what matters and that’s what clients look for.”

For the sake of continuing to plug the skills gap, it is to be hoped that workers from the EU accession countries are given no reason to complain.

Sebastian’s story

Sebastian Lorek, 27, from Krakow, Poland

Why did you come to England?
There are no decent jobs in Poland. It is a depressing place. If you’re young and male it’s common knowledge that you can get a well-paid job in England working in construction, even if you’re unskilled. I knew some Polish people in London who said they could find me work.

I came over in August 2001. It took me 30 hours on a bus to get to Victoria bus station in London. This included a scary six-hour interview at customs in Dover. I had to pretend I was coming over for a holiday as I only had a six-month tourist visa. As soon as I got to London, I paid more than £600 in legal fees to get a business visa. This enabled me to start working legally.

Do you enjoy working on construction sites?
When I first started working I couldn’t speak any English and had to sweep up and clear rubbish. You’re disabled without English. But I learned the language and did a two-week scaffolding training course.

Do you plan to stay here?
Yes. I love it here. I work hard but I get paid well and this gives me a good quality of life.

Andrius’ story

Andrius Petrauskas, 26, from Siaulis, north Lithuania

Why did you come to England?
I was working as an electrician back home but I only earned enough to get by. I’d heard from my brother who came over six months before me that you could earn five or six times more working on sites over here. So in November 2001 I paid a lorry firm to let me drive a lorry over to London. This enabled me to get into the country easily. It took me 18 months of working illegally before I had saved enough money to pay for a visa.

Do you enjoy working on construction sites?
I really didn't like it at first. I was working illegally for the first 18 months and that was tough. Once my English improved and I had saved up enough money to pay for a visa, I went on a training course to be a banksman. My English still isn't good enough to work as an electrician. But I enjoy working as a banksman.

Do you plan to stay here?
I hope to go back in four or five years time if the economy is doing better. If not, I'll definitely stay.