The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, continues to make announcements in line with the Government’s ongoing commitment to reduce net migration to a sustainable level. These have included, amongst other things, a quickly retracted suggestions that companies keep a disclosable list of their non-EU workers, proposals to reduce the number of visas issued to non-EU students, a crackdown on work visas by tightening the advertising rules to address gaps in the skilled labour market and prevent migrants from “taking jobs British people could do” and the introduction of a £140m fund to ease pressure on public services in areas of high migration.

These proposals sit within the wider context of stiffer illegal working penalties under the Immigration Act 2016, large numbers of civil penalties (circa £14 million from April to June 2016), the introduction in 6 April 2017 of a skills levy of up to £1,000 per year per sponsored Tier 2 worker.

We also cannot ignore the fallout from the Brexit referendum which threatens to restrict access to the large pool of European workers on whom the construction industry is highly reliant. The June 2016 referendum has not impacted on the rights of EU nationals to live and work in the UK. However addressing the continuation of this right will form a key part of the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Recent data from the Office of National Statistics shows that low-skilled sectors which traditionally recruit workers from the EU are already struggling to recruit with vacancy levels being particularly high. This may well be directly linked to data showing that the number of EU nationals entering the UK almost halved from an average of 60,000 + per quarter in the nine months to June 2016 to 30,000 between June and September 2016.

In this challenging environment what should construction firms, as an acknowledged vulnerable industry for illegal workers, be doing?

  1. Audit your workforce Right to work (“RTW”) checks must be undertaken pre-employment for all employees regardless of their nationality. They should be refreshed, where appropriate, before visa expiry to provide a statutory defence against a potential £20,000 civil penalty per illegal worker and criminal sanctions. Regularly auditing workforce files identifies potential issues in advance.
  2. Review and, if necessary, refresh RTW training and support  Forged RTW documents are increasingly sophisticated. Ensuring that those responsible for checking documents have up-to-date knowledge and training on identifying forgeries, is critical.
  3. Cascade knowledge In workforces spread out over a number of sites you could consider appointing an “immigration champion” with knowledge of RTW rules for a second review of RTW documents.
  4. Consider post Brexit recruitment and training needs. There is currently no impact on the right of EU nationals to live and work in the UK. However data already shows that less EU nationals are entering the UK, meaning access to this pool of workers is likely to become increasingly limited in the future. Studies also show that most EU workers already in the UK would not meet any new visa conditions introduced. We recommend that the construction industry consider the training offered to current and local staff now to address skills gaps and future needs. Could you, for example, offer more apprenticeships utilising the new Apprenticeship Levy scheme in place from April 2017?
  5. Build in costs of Brexit related workforce changes to new contracts Any future requirement for EU nationals to obtain visas to work in the UK is likely to impact on the costs of completing construction projects. When negotiating new future contracts we recommend you build in flexibility into your arrangements to take this into account.