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Losing international workers post-Brexit will ‘hurt’ the construction industry, says lawyer

A leading lawyer says employers should take steps to ensure they hold on to vital international staff post-Brexit. Matthew Cole, Employment Partner at Ipswich law firm Prettys, issued the advice ahead of International Workers’ Day on May 1. Government figures show that, in the final quarter of last year, there were more than 3.5 million foreign workers employed in the UK, with two-thirds of them from the EU.

“The most important step that an employer can take is to encourage any EU workers to apply for settled status and be proactive in providing information required,” said Mr Cole.

“Settled status means that the rights of EU citizens living in the UK will stay the same after Brexit.

“Applicants will need to demonstrate that they have been settled in the UK for at least five years, and so helping them through this process by providing old employment-related documents, such as pay slips and letters of appointment, can be really helpful.”

In some sectors, international workers currently account for a significant proportion of the overall workforce. In construction, for example, the Office of National Statistics found that 10% of workers come from outside the UK – with that figure as high as 35% in London.

Prettys’ head of construction Rebecca Palmer said any restriction on employing foreign workers would therefore be a major challenge for the sector. 

“If, for whatever reason, we were to lose our valued international workers, I think it would really hurt the UK’s construction industry,” she said.

“Inevitably our team engages with international workers regularly as part of our role advising organisations in the construction sphere. 

“Whether its contractors, developers, consultants, subcontractors or others with whom we liaise, it is clear that the strengths demonstrated by individuals to deliver successful projects day in, day out, are not exclusive to domestic workers but every bit as prevalent (and in some instances even more so) in international workers.

“The commitment, versatility and adaptability we encounter is a significant driving force for change and we really need them in the industry.” Mr Cole called on the Government to do more to prepare companies for how to cope with any post-Brexit skills shortage.

“Training is essential and certainly making the apprenticeship path as easy as possible will help. Many employers are still not using their full apprenticeship levy allocation and the Government could do more to facilitate this,” he said. 

Ms Palmer added that the construction industry is among those for which the skills shortages have long been identified as a pressing challenge.

“One of the biggest issues that the UK faces is its productivity gap. Our productivity continues to lag behind much of the rest of Europe and there is a general sense of reliance upon labour, rather than considering innovation around technology to solve problems. So, the answer is for the Government to look at how it encourages businesses to invest in long-term solutions, that will make the reduced labour pool as productive as the larger labour pool currently is.”