David Griffin: Lessons to learn from migrant workers

David Griffin suggests that qualified migrant tradesmen should take on local apprentices. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
David Griffin suggests that qualified migrant tradesmen should take on local apprentices. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Just a week after deciding to put pen to paper on the subject of immigration, I had cause to email a general builder I use frequently for business and household work.

I simply stated: “It’s Wednesday and you are not here as you said you would!”

Entrants to all sorts of trades have no real concept of what quality workmanship is like

David Griffin

Jurek replied as follows at 11.05pm: “Sorry but was a busy day. Yesterday I had an accident, I burnt my hand, nothing serious but still hospital. I will definitely be there tomorrow.”

This, to me, sums up the incredulous stupidity of those who complain about migrant workers coming to live in the UK. How many UK tradesmen would be working at that time of night and then turn up the next day with a huge bandage on their hand and arm?

It is, however, a fact that very few first-generation migrants compete for jobs such as MSPs, heart surgeons or school headmasters; instead, competition is fierce in the sectors that are at or close to minimum wage and therefore UK citizens who are genuinely concerned about their employment prospects due to migration should not be considered racists.

READ MORE: David Griffin: Let’s have some calm after the EU vote

The Scottish Government does, however, have a target of building 50,000 new homes within the next five years, a figure which possibly does not take into account the cutbacks in the local authority departments that process planning applications and provide building warrants and roads approvals – and nor will it take into account the democratic right of the better-educated and much more savvy residents of nice neighbourhoods to successfully object to new housing at the end of their street.

However, the greatest threat to achieving the Government’s target is the lack of a suitably skilled workforce covering all the trades necessary to construct good quality homes – and I emphasise the words “good quality”.

Back in the mid-1980s, I met a plumber whilst on holiday, who forecast that in 20 years’ time it would be easier to get an appointment with a consultant psychologist than it would be an experienced tradesman plumber. To date I haven’t felt the need for the psychologist, but I have spent a small fortune re-doing the work of the Scottish plumber who helped me renovate my own home.

The Thatcher years almost completely did away with the apprenticeship system and at the same time introduced compulsory competitive tendering for all government, local authority and NHS contracts. And despite the concept of “best value”, inevitably it is the lowest price that wins the work. By cutting prices to the bone, corners also had to be cut and as such over a period of years the bar on acceptable standards has been lowered and entrants to all sorts of trades have no real concept of what quality workmanship is like.

The introduction and subsequent influx of principally Polish workers – followed by Czechs, Lithuanians and other further eastern Europeans – has increased the number and availability of tradesmen throughout the UK. One legal introduction I would suggest is that for every two qualified migrant tradesmen, they should be obliged to take on a local apprentice. The reason is of course not just to give a youngster good quality training but also introduce a work ethic that was eroded from almost the 1970s. It will also help with the initial language barrier.

When I called Jurek – he of the burnt hand – on a Sunday to tell him that a pipe had burst at my home, he was out within an hour and because he lacked someone to look after his child she was brought along so that he could deal with my emergency. To my mind the truth of the matter is very simple – if we had enough tradesmen willing and able to do the work that is obviously available to them, migration would not be an issue as foreign workers would not be able to establish themselves in this country as, by nature, most of us prefer to give work “to our own”.

As it happens, with the value of the pound depreciating, those workers who come to Britain with a view to sending money home as opposed to becoming permanent residents may not find it worthwhile.

As a final thought, in Scotland we do not appear to have an entrepreneurial spirit in the same way that those in the US and south-east Asia have.

We are probably getting the best and most spirited of foreign workers coming to our country and surely our own younger tradesmen must stand back and admire those who come from abroad with very little money, work ridiculously long hours, share accommodation to save up capital and then start their own businesses.

I can only hope that some of this entrepreneurial spirit will rub off on our own population and a new generation of home-grown talent and new businesses will be created. Just a thought.

• David Griffin is managing director of Glasgow-based Griffin Webster Property Consultants

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