05 April 2016

On 14 October 2015, the Home Office announced a new campaign designed to tackle construction companies hiring illegal workers. Called “Operation Magnify”, the campaign targets businesses believed to hire and exploit illegals – workers who typically do not have the experience or qualifications necessary to perform the jobs that they are hired for efficiently or even safely, which puts other site workers and the general public at unnecessary risk. 1

On 29 October, Section 54 of the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 came into force, requiring companies doing business in the UK with an annual turnover of £36 million or more to publish yearly statements detailing what actions they have taken to ensure the absence of human trafficking or slavery practices in their business and/ or supply chains.2

Also prevalent is the continuing conversation about the skills shortage. While the industry itself is recovering, output levels are not being met by employment growth. Add to that the fact that, when job vacancies are compared with unemployment figures, it looks as if the existing skill pool is shrinking. Much of this is the effect of the recession; with companies downsizing their training efforts and skilled workers making the decision to leave the industry altogether once they’d lost their jobs.3

Ours is a labour intensive business

In an industry like ours, despite advances in technology, the work we do is still highly labour intensive. With appropriately skilled personnel being difficult to find, some within the industry may be tempted to hire unqualified and even illegal workers and/ or turn a blind eye to overseas practices that exploit workers and deny individuals the most basic of human rights. This article explores all three areas, with a mind to educate and inform. After all, knowledge is power, and awareness is the first step to finding the appropriate solution within our individual businesses.

We've got an ongoing skill shortage

One of the primary reasons that the construction industry in particular is prone to illegal migrant hire is the skill shortage; a problem that has been facing the industry for over a century. There have been numerous attempts to resolve the problem; however, the recurring headlines over the years tell the tale.

Recession takes its toll

There are a few reasons for the persistence of the skills shortage, recession being a major one. During down times, when work is difficult to come by, training programmes all but cease and skilled workers already in the industry are let go. To exacerbate the issue, unions attempt to limit the number of apprenticeships offered during a recession in an effort to prevent an oversupply of skilled workers. The result is that, when the recession eventually ends and construction begins to take off, the serious lack of skilled workers becomes apparent. Unfortunately, even then, many businesses are still reluctant to look at the bigger picture and put robust training and recruitment programmes into place. After all, the next recession may be closer than we think.4

School leavers aren't seeing the opportunities

Another area of concern is how jobs within the construction industry are promoted in schools. According to Greendale Construction’s finance and HR director Maria Seabright, construction is considered a career for those of less academic inspirations; something that she strongly rejects. In an article for the Independent, Seabright makes her case by presenting the example of a 16-year-old carpenter apprentice with 11 GCSEs of which most are A and A* grades. According to her, more than likely, the lad will go on to benefit from a company-financed university degree and progress into management, belaying the idea that construction and academia are at odds.5

Transient hiring practices are hurting us

The nature of our hiring practices could also be a major factor. Many companies within the industry limit the number of full-time employees that they hire, preferring more transient hires on a job-to-job basis. Whilst many in the industry are properly self-employed, a large number are not. These people have no guarantees and no safety net. They get no holiday or sick pay, and they never know from week to week (or even day to day) whether they’ll have a job to go to. This uncertainty causes many with real talent to seek work in other fields or take their skills abroad.

Whatever the reasons for the skill shortage, and whatever approach the industry and government take to offset it, in the interim, the lack of qualified workers and fresh blood poses a serious problem – one that the less scrupulous amongst us might be tempted to short-term fix by turning to illegal hires and/or turning a blind eye to unethical and even inhumane practices within their supply chains.

Operation Magnify - illegal hires aren't the answer

It was out of the skill shortage and the industry’s historical reliance on transient labour that the idea for Operation Magnify was born. The government believes that these two things in combination are a recipe that tempts some to consider and/or turn a blind eye to illegal employment. According to an article in Construction Manager Magazine, the government also believes that, despite the complexity regarding lines of responsibility on a construction project, Tier One contractors are the first line of defence, with a responsibility to champion legal working practices by analysing and address illegal activities on site to minimise project risks, thus minimising by extension wider industry risks

There are several reasons why using illegal hires is unwise:

  • It drives down wages.

  • Legal workers are denied rightful employment.

  • It hurts the industry’s reputation.

  • It diminishes the quality of work and creates unnecessary risk.

  • Illegals are often without appropriate qualifications, making them a danger both to others working the building site and to the general public.6

Tackling exploitation of illegals

Through Operation Magnify, immigration officers will target construction businesses and work sites that they believe to be exploiting illegal workers. If a company is found to be employing illegals, the fine could be as much as £20,000 for each illegal worker discovered. There is also the possibility of a prison sentence of up to five years, with new measures making it much easier to prosecute those employers who have failed to comply with Right to Work 7. As for the workers themselves, they will be deemed to have committed a criminal offense and face losing their earnings and possibly deportation.

To aid companies in their efforts to prevent illegal hires, the government has also made Right to Work8 checks easier. This includes lowering the frequency of checks and reducing the amount of associated paperwork.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 - monitoring hiring practices across the supply chain

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 attempts to address the global problem of human trafficking and slavery by placing requirements upon those goods and services businesses that conduct business in the UK and have an annual turnover of £36 million or more. Key to the Act is Section 54, which lays out mandatory disclosure requirements.

Meeting reporting requirements

Each financial year, businesses that meet the requirements must present a “slavery and human trafficking statement” that details the steps that the business has taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking are not taking place within any portion of their own business or within any of the supply chains used. These businesses will then be required to publish their statement on their website, if they have one. For businesses without a website, the statement must be made readily available to anyone who requests it. It is the hope that this level of transparency – and the negative press that is risked with non-compliance – will urge businesses to take extra steps in ensuring that human trafficking and slavery are truly absent from their business and supply chains.9

Some solutions to consider

While Operation Magnify and the Modern Slavery Act are both mandates by the government that must and should be complied with, the skills shortage is something that is best addressed by the industry itself. We must find practical solutions that entice both new people into the industry and skilled people to return. The question is how?

Encourage BIM adoption

The adoption of BIM offers a huge opportunity to entice young people and the technologically forward-thinking into the industry. Here in the UK, the BIM Academic Forum (BAF) has been formed, representing a large group of UK universities who are promoting the academic aspects of Building Information Modelling. The goal is to provide a kind of road map to integrating BIM education within specific discipline focused undergraduate and post-graduate education.10

Recruit more women

Currently, women only make up about 11% of the construction workforce while, overall, they make up approximately half of the UK’s employment pool. While there are several networks and organisations that support women in construction, a further push is needed to help increase the attractiveness of roles in the industry; not only to new starters but to those who find the glass ceiling and “man’s world” element an impenetrable force and therefore leave to pursue other paths. One campaign addressing the issue is being spear-headed by Crossrail, who have offered the CITB-supported Women into Construction group free space in their Canary Wharf location in order to facilitate collaboration between the group and the company’s employment and education teams. 11

Actively participate in educational programmes

Imperative to addressing the skills shortage is changing the messages being received by young people in school. To that end, global construction consultancy firm Turner & Townsend have adopted two schools in an effort to introduce young people to the construction industry and illustrate the possibilities a career in construction might afford them. Students participating in the accredited curriculum will be tasked with designing a virtual classroom. During the course, they will learn about the different roles and elements of the industry, including sustainable design, architecture, planning, project management, procurement, and BIM.12

Use targeted immigration

In Australia, companies are tackling the skill shortage within their oil and gas industry via targeted immigration. This includes enticing foreign skilled labour as well as offering incentives to skilled Australians who have moved abroad to return.13

Invest in training programmes and apprenticeships

As mentioned earlier, one of the historical problems we face as an industry is the reluctance of companies to offer training programmes: During a recession, training all but ceases. Once the recession ends, businesses still feel reluctant to create robust programmes for fear that another recession is already on its way. The only way to tackle this self-perpetuating problem is to stop worrying about the short term and look at the bigger picture. Training programmes and apprenticeships are vital to industry health.

We need a step-change in our thinking

As with most things, addressing the skill shortage, as well as getting a handle on illegal hires and slavery in the supply chains, requires a step-change not only in the way we think as an industry, but the way we are viewed by those outside of the industry. The skills shortage is a century old problem, but there are practical, plausible solutions at hand. We just need to apply them.

This article has been edited and repurposed from “Human trafficking, Operation Magnify, and the skills shortage”, written for the Construction Information Service.