The migrant magic

With 12,000 employees operating production lines on a total outsource basis and working in his recruitment business, Andy Hogarth discusses the positives and negatives of employing migrant workers, and offers some timely advice

Although my company is predominately one that operates as a recruitment business, we also operate production lines on a total outsource basis for some of our clients – so with over 12,000 people working for us each day we’ve experienced first hand most of the problems that can come from employing migrant workers, as well as enjoying many of the benefits!

One of the first things to point out is that the fall in sterling against the euro and zloty in the past year has seen many workers leaving the UK and returning to mainland Europe. This has reduced the pool of available labour and so it has become more important, if you want to both attract and retain staff, to ensure that you are seen by potential migrant (and local) workers as the employer of choice in your area – not just by paying well but also by offering training and other incentives.

One of the first things to consider before, or even after, you decide to recruit migrant workers is whether it would actually be easier to recruit local indigenous workers instead, and how to go about that? It is usually easier to recruit a local than a migrant, so try looking at different travel to work areas than you do usually; and try different mediums for attracting candidates – not just the usual old ad in the local paper – would leaflets work or how about a full colour banner outside your factory? Ads in local shops or posters in the workplace offering an incentive for recommendations from existing employees often work too.

Don’t forget to ‘sell’ your company. If the working conditions, pay, pension scheme, staff shop or working hours are good, then tell prospective employees and make a song and dance about them – make them want to come and learn more about you. Many of the clients we work for have great benefits; they just forget to tell their prospective staff about them. This is also important in retaining existing staff, once they are used to you it’s easy for them to forget quite how good an employer you are.

But, if you’ve decided you definitely want to recruit migrant workers, what are the things to think about?

Where can you find migrant workers?
In the four years since the eight accession states joined the EU, 565,000 workers have come to the UK, and the majority of them are still here and have established roots. Attracting these workers is far simpler than recruiting new ones in their home countries. However, it’s unlikely they will read your local paper; they are interested in who was fined for speeding in their original home town not their adopted one! A good way to attract them is by tapping into the local church, community centre or other groups. Ask the priest for permission to put a poster up, talk to any community leader, put the hand of friendship out and you’ll be surprised how well it is received. If there is a local Polish delicatessen start talking to the owner, maybe put an advert in the window – seriously. Once you make some contact into the community many workers will apply for jobs simply by word of mouth.

If this doesn’t work then you may have to go to eastern Europe to recruit. There are many local or UK agencies that are very happy to help, but you’ll have to pay a fee. Choose carefully, and in particular have it confirmed that prospective workers will be charged no fees, or commissions or any other payment – a common practice in some countries, but illegal in the UK. Try to pick an agent who works in a town or region which has the skill set you need. If you want to recruit substantial numbers then it is possible to do it yourself using local adverts and job centres, but it can work out more costly than using an agent by the time you fly out and accommodate a team from the UK – let alone the possible problems with language and cultural barriers.

If you need special skills or good languages make sure these are tested and are acceptable early in the process. Having had people who in Poland passed such tests with flying colours only to fail to perform in the UK we have learnt to ensure that there are no friends who are ‘helping’!

What do you provide?
With low cost carriers such as EasyJet, flights can be cheap, but still probably too high for your new staff, so you will need to be prepared to pay for this. Once they are here, remember to allow for meeting and transferring them from the airport to their new town. One of the most immediate issues to sort out will be accommodation in the UK. Get this wrong and you run the risk of a lot of negative local publicity. You wouldn’t normally even consider helping a UK worker with housing, yet you probably will need to help someone from eastern Europe. From bitter experience we have learnt not to get involved apart from putting workers in touch with a reputable landlord if requested, we then bow out.

In addition, remember that most workers will have little or no cash – we help by providing each person with a ‘welcome pack’ of groceries and toiletries sufficient to last until their first pay day.

In order to pay them they’ll need a bank account – which is hard to get in this country without any utility bills as proof of address. Try persuading your bank to bend their rules and help.

Also, you’ll need to try and find a local GP who is prepared to add to their patient list and, even harder, a dentist.

They’ll also need help in finding their way to work – bus, car or walk? Could you help by lending enough money to help a group buy and insure a car? Would a loan for a bicycle help?

Preparing the workplace
Unless their written language skills are good you’ll need to ensure all health and safety notices including all COSH notices are translated into the correct language.
Best practice dictates the same process for contracts of employment, complaints procedures and any other written communications.

An influx of migrant workers can sometimes cause resentment among the existing workforce. You can try and overcome this with ‘getting to know you’ sessions – perhaps with something like a buffet with local foods from the migrant workers’ countries? Try and promote from your migrant worker pool as well, this will help break down barriers as well as give you management with a very different perspective.

Illegal workers
You can’t be too careful in making sure you don’t employ illegal workers, there are big fines and imprisonment if you do – although it’s not so much of a problem with workers from the A8, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

To ensure everything is above board, all you need to do is keep a copy of their passport and ensure they fill out a WRS form, see www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/workingintheuk/eea/ for more details.

It’s trickier if your workers are from Bulgaria or Romania, because at the moment the number of workers is strictly limited, see www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/ workingintheuk/eea/bulgariaromania

Workers from other countries outside of the EU will need a work permit, see www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/workingintheuk/tier2/

Is it worth it?
In a word, yes. Despite the problems and effort detailed above (and some others such as dealing with the after effects of high spirited youngsters enjoying their first taste of freedom in the west, which for us has unfortunately included two deaths due to alcohol) the advantages can be huge. You could have a highly educated and motivated workforce, wanting to work long hours and earn as much money as possible. They largely have a great work ethic, and are keen to keep busy even if it is sweeping or painting. This has often also rubbed off on the local workforce – in many of the factories we work in we’ve seen overall productivity increase significantly, and absence rates drop. For one client a fall in absence of six per cent was worth over half a million pounds per annum.

So, in essence, when looking to employ migrant workers, think about the best way of making contact with the kind of worker you need, make sure that everything is completely legal, do your best to help them settle in the UK and in their new job – and then sit back and reap the benefits!

Andy Hogarth is managing director of Staffline Recruitment Group