The benefits of immigration to construction
As globalisation gathers pace, so immigration is an increasingly hot topic.
The breaking down of national borders is largely business driven, as international companies pick and choose where to base their operations. This decision is often motivated by factors including local labour costs, legal and tax regulations, and proximity to raw materials and consumers – although these last two factors are diminishing in importance as fast transportation and e-commerce become the norm.
Free movement of labour is also beneficial to business and to some degree this has followed on from globalisation. Just as companies will often move to locations where they can employ skilled or unskilled labour at the lowest cost, so skilled and unskilled workers will head for those territories where they can earn the most money for their toil. This movement is made easier by the expansion of integrated labour markets such as the European Union.
But migrant labour is nothing new, especially within the construction industry. Construction work could be described as a moveable feast, and most of the great construction projects worldwide have historically been built by migrant labour. The great pyramids at Giza are now believed to have been mostly constructed by skilled migrant labour, and certainly the railways, bridges and viaducts of Britain’s industrial revolution were largely the work of skilled Irish navvies, though frequently suffering from appalling employment conditions.
While recognising the benefits of immigration, governments should act to protect the rights of workers both at home and from abroad. Providing appropriate training structures and opportunities will help native workers find jobs, while fair competition can be ensured by tackling exploitative employers rather than by obstructing or penalising those traveling in search of work. Enforcing a minimum wage is another step that governments can take, with unions acting as watchdogs on behalf of their members. There are advantages from the construction sector’s point of view to a points-based managed migration system, where points are awarded in line with local labour market needs. However, this must be flexible and adaptive enough to allow for sufficient movement to quickly meet changing requirements.
Construction is a naturally itinerant industry, reliant on migrant labour to meet its needs. The work moves around; as a result, so do the workers. Integrated labour markets and increased mobility have generally been beneficial to the sector. The construction industry in a country with closed borders will suffer as major projects will simply not get off the ground due to the lack of available labour. Obviously this will mean fewer jobs for native workers too. We can see then that if a level playing field is established via the processes outlined above, immigrant labour benefits the interests of native labour, rather than being detrimental to it.
Construction workers must go where the work is, and the industry relies on them doing so. As a result, immigration has kept the sector vibrant and profitable. Hopefully it will continue to do so for generations to come.