These countries, which have all established parliamentary democracies in the 15 years since the overthrow of communism, join the European Union tomorrow. This will lead to a relaxation of restrictions on the movement of labour.
Lewis, who was speaking at the launch of a project management qualification in central London, told Building: “There is of course a role for immigration in solving the skills shortage as long as people use the proper channels to enter the country.”
Lewis said that Britain ought to welcome the contribution of foreign workers to construction and to the wider economy in general.
He said that this was one of several strategies that the industry needed to embrace. He said: “Immigration is part of the approach. We also need to increase the number of young people going into construction through vocational training, and we need to get employers to invest more in people who are already in the industry.”
The central European countries that are joining the EU are Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), Slovakia and Slovenia. Malta and Cyprus are also joining. These countries have a combined population of about 75 million.
An EU study carried out in February found that just 1% of the populations of these countries would be likely to migrate, but even if this were the case it would mean that 220,000 people could be expected to arrive in the UK each year until 2009.
The industry has reacted positively to the enlargement of the EU and firms are looking to take up the opportunities it creates.
Workers may wait and see what investment takes place in their country
Spokesperson for Bovis
Contractor Bovis said that it would wait to see which sectors of the market had skills gaps. A spokesperson said: “We already have businesses in places such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, and we were one of the first construction firms in after the fall of communism. We see EU enlargement as a further opportunity.”
The spokesperson said many eastern European countries had strong economies and because of this there might be fewer migrants than had been predicted in some parts of the press.
He said: “We work with many highly skilled tradesmen from eastern Europe and they might want to wait to see what inward investment takes place in their country before they leave.”
David Sparrow, head of property at consultant EC Harris, said that many of the accession states would want to upgrade their utilities and infrastructure to meet EU standards and this would create fresh opportunities. He said it would create demand for retail goods.
Sparrow said that British firms might also help to improve standards in some of these countries by establishing a code of conduct in which corruption played no part.
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