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FMB brands Migration Watch EU worker analysis “wrong”

The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) has said that it is “wrong” for Migration Watch UK to suggest that there is little need for EU workers post-Brexit.

The controversial sentiments underpinned a recent article authored by Migration Watch – an independent, non-political think tank chaired by the former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Lord Green of Deddington.

According to Migration Watch, concerns over access to EU workers post-Brexit are unfounded. Rather, the focus should be engaging with our untapped workforce – the 1.5 million Briton’s currently languishing in unemployment.

What’s more, Lord Green claimed that EU workers had long been exploited as a cheap and reliable source of labour – the product of cynical business practice. “The truth is that some employers have been doing very nicely out of workers who are prepared to work hard while putting up with low pay, poor conditions and little flexibility in their hours,” wrote Lord Green. “Worse, some employers are being subsidised by the taxpayer to employ migrants from the EU.”

Brexit has the potential to galvanize British industry however. With fewer EU workers to rely on, business owners will be forced to make decisions that they would never entertain otherwise.

“One solution for employers would be to invest so as to improve productivity which has been virtually flat in the UK for nearly ten years,” continued Lord Green. “However, they are hardly likely to take the risks involved in investing in technology when they have a virtually unlimited supply of cheap and flexible labour.”

Like the many millions who voted in favour of it, Migration Watch sees Brexit as an opportunity to place British interests at the head of the table: “Low paid EU workers may be good for profits but the rest of society has to cope with the consequences for housing, public services and the cost of in-work benefits. Brexit is an opportunity to put a stop to this.”

It’s all a bit insular however and the concerns of the construction sector are not without merit. Has Lord Green failed to recognise the full extent of the skills shortage? For the Federation of Master Builders, the answer is a resounding yes. “Migration Watch’s conclusion that there is no real need for EU workers flies in the face of the experience of key sectors like construction,” commented Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the FMB.

“The sector is undoubtedly facing serious skills shortages, and in certain areas of the country ongoing inflows of EU workers have served to mitigate this and help the industry and economy continue to grow. We accept that free movement will end in the years following the UK’s exit from the EU, but the Government needs to be realistic and flexible and take account of the likely ongoing need for key sectors like construction.”

FMB statistics seem to substantiate those concerns. Over a third of SME housebuilders employ EU workers, with that figure rising to 70% in London and the South East. Of those employers, a third believe that the end of free movement will hinder their ability to grow.

“If the Government gets this wrong, there is a real possibility that skills shortages will further intensify, threatening the delivery of new housing with a knock-on effect on growth across the wider economy,” concluded Mr Berry.

It’s a delicate balance. The UK construction sector is in desperate need of skilled workers, and the EU has made valuable contributions in the past. But Brexit could give business owners the impetus they need to engage with our own reserve of workers. Predictably, only time will tell.

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