How can the construction sector access overseas talent?

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Kirsty Moore, from the immigration law firm Fragomen, explains the practical steps construction companies can take to hire workers from overseas.

In March 2023, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) published its review of labour shortages in the construction sector, culminating in a set of recommendations that were accepted by the Home Office.

The review’s intention is to make it easier for construction businesses to access overseas workers by sponsoring them to come to the UK. MAC made clear the reasons why immigration is considered a suitable short-term response to shortages: evidence of sector-wide initiatives to improve recruitment and retention in the longer term, together with the strategic importance of construction work to the UK’s economy.

That said, the data shows a very low uptake of sponsored visas for construction roles, in part because a large number of SMEs haven’t yet taken the step of becoming registered sponsors.

With industry experts expecting growth in 2024 and citing labour shortages as one of the main risks construction companies will face, it is hoped that more construction businesses will be able to tap into the vast pool of overseas talent to fill gaps of various shapes and sizes in their organisations.

Sponsoring workers under the Points Based System

The UK’s points-based system allows businesses to sponsor as many qualifying overseas workers as they need.

The company must first apply for a sponsor licence and once in place it can issue Certificates of Sponsorship to those eligible for a Skilled Worker visa. The visa application is then submitted by the worker in their home country and is generally processed within one to three weeks.

Most established construction businesses should be eligible for a sponsor licence. You’ll need to submit an online application form and include some specific corporate documents (such as evidence of PAYE and VAT registration, a copy of a lease, corporate bank statements, employer’s liability certificate). Applications are usually processed within eight weeks, with priority processing options usually available.

You should be aware that once you hold a sponsor licence you will be obliged to comply with ongoing compliance duties set by the Home Office. The expectation is that sponsors bear responsibility for ensuring migrants are treated fairly and preventing abuse of the immigration system.

There will be requirements to inform the Home Office about company-level changes, such as a change of address or key personnel. There will also be employee-level changes to report, for example if a sponsored worker is promoted or moves to a new worksite. 

It is important at the outset to have a plan in place to comply so that you avoid Home Office sanctions. It is possible for a sponsor licence to be suspended or revoked if obligations are not properly adhered to.

Shortage occupations across construction

Per the MAC’s recommendations, and to make sponsoring skilled workers easier for construction companies, from summer 2023 the following roles will be added to the Home Office’s official shortage occupation list:

  • Bricklayers and masons
  • Roofers, roof tilers and slaters
  • Carpenters and joiners
  • Plasterers
  • Those in construction and building trades not elsewhere classified.

While this won’t be an immediate resolution for the sector, it does mean that if businesses sponsor migrants in these roles, they will:

  • Pay a reduced visa application fee (currently £464 instead of £610) for a three-year application;
  • Be subject to a reduced minimum salary – the exact figures will vary from role to role, but for example, a bricklayer must currently be paid £26,200, to be reduced to the higher of £20,960 or £10.75 an hour once added to the shortage occupation list.

Looking ahead

Whether easing access to sponsored visas for the construction sector will abate recruitment struggles remains to be seen.

It’s possible many businesses, particularly SMEs, will have reservations about the administrative burden and overall costs of applying for and maintaining a sponsor licence.

Despite headlines of record high net migration figures, it seems unlikely there will be any significant changes to the UK’s immigration regime in the foreseeable future, and certainly doubtful the government will narrow scope for overseas recruitment in the construction sector.

The government must consider the conflicting forces that drive its policy, weighing up political and potentially arbitrary migration targets against economic growth and, of course, their own targets to build.

Kirsty Moore is a senior associate at the global immigration law firm Fragomen. She works with construction companies across the UK on the immigration and mobility strategies.

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