Is total refusal of migrants on construction sites possible?

Is total refusal of migrants on construction sites possible?
Photo: Roman Khasayev

A plan for a total refusal of migrants on construction sites is prepared in Moscow: this is how the capital’s authorities plan to cope with the staff crisis in the sector. They think the construction process must require three times fewer people, while their salary must be 2-3 times higher. In the next article for Realnoe Vremya, our columnist, economist with long-term banking experience Artur Safiulin reflects on how real the complete refusal of migrants’ services on construction sites is and what it can lead to.

A very brave and interesting offer has been recently voiced — to completely refuse migrants’ services on construction sites. Now, this is hard to imagine, but the status of the offer’s initiator allows considering the prospect of upcoming reforms in the sector seriously. Vice Moscow Mayor for Urban Engineering Policy and Construction Andrey Bochkaryov said the authorities of the city were preparing a plan to cope with the staff crisis on construction sites, which spells out the refusal of using migrants’ labour. At the same time, the construction process will require three times fewer people and the salary must be 2-3 times higher than now. Let’s see the essence of the plan that’s offered and assess how realistic it is.

The gist of the plan offered

The construction market of our country’s capital is a case in point, of course. In the last years, a huge number of different large-scale construction projects, firstly, infrastructural, have started in Moscow. Due to this, there is an urgent need for engineers and workers. The vice mayor estimates that the deficit of the workforce is now 40%. No more than 40,000 of 120,000 migrants employed on construction sites have left now. The pandemic makes itself known: a lot of migrants went home and cannot go back, however, a rise in workers from Moscow suburbs is registered too.

Nowadays the migrant’s average wage is 50-60,000 rubles, moreover, many don’t want to work even for 80,000 rubles

Perhaps, the pandemic will offer a chance of reforming the construction sector much faster than if this were in usual conditions when migrants had to be paid twice less than Russians, and absolutely everybody was happy with such a state of affairs in the sector. Nowadays the migrant’s average wage is 50-60,000 rubles, moreover, many don’t want to work even for 80,000 rubles. Due to this, the involvement of prisoners to work on construction sites is now actively discussed.

The functionary put an example of the assembly of the water distribution unit on the site. In his opinion, this can be done on an assembly belt, not put it on the site. Process mechanisation such as plastering station, which can replace four workers, is another example. The authors of the project think the whole design and construction process must be done in a way to minimise the number of workers. In other words, concreting a spot to assemble a big column is performed by one person, not a migrant but a local highly qualified engineer full of instruments. Of course, he will receive up to 200,000 rubles a month for his job, which is more productive. And the employer will pay such money with pleasure because he replaces 3-4 workers. It seems to me that it will be a sensitive stimulus for the youth to get engineering jobs. Instead of receiving an unnecessary diploma in higher education, which happens now, to tick the box.

This plan also speaks about the quality of today’s education in the construction industry. In the old fashion, everything is based on learning industrial civil construction, which is 90% an engineering discipline, with calculations, formulas, materials science, constructions. All this is necessary, of course. But in the modern world, much more time is dedicated to construction management methods that are given 10-15% of study time in Russia. These disciplines should be divided into teaching engineering and construction management.

It is no secret that our constructors are not susceptible to innovations in their sector — a lot of things are done in a technology that has been tested for decades

The feasibility of the plan

Naturally, opinions split, but most in the sector advocate the idea of the Moscow government’s specialised functionaries noting that it is time for reforms. Large-scale involvement of the workforce from Russian regions would become a mid-term solution to the staff shortage. To raise productivity, a clear strategy and a plan of action are needed because construction productivity has been in stagnation for many years and it doesn’t go up at a stroke, the paradigm of the current generation of constructors must change.

It is no secret that our constructors are not susceptible to innovations in their sector — a lot of things are done in a technology that has been tested for decades. The introduction of the BIM technology can be put as an example, which has been lasting for 10 years and hasn’t yet been introduced. BIM technologies (building information modelling) are a process based on smart 3D models. With the help of this technology, construction specialists can plan, design, build and use buildings and infrastructure facilities more effectively.

All this raises the necessity of education and training of qualified staff that can work with new technologies and introduce them in the construction process because they will be paid much better for this. The plan sounds perfect, but as usual, the classic Russian execution “to tick the box” can spoil it. Staffing is a long-term project, a lot of people will have to be taught and retrained, and results such as higher productivity will be seen in 5-10 years, not earlier. Now the market simply doesn’t have such specialists who can alone replace several people on the construction site.

The business’s readiness to have additional costs to purchase expensive equipment will be another problem, since high efficiency looks simple only on paper. First of all, it is a big price tag in a foreign currency because almost everything is made abroad. Any rise in the construction prime cost, i.e. higher price for a square metre of a new construction facility, will be shifted to our shoulders. Are we ready to pay for the disappearance of migrants from our construction sites this way?

At the moment, our construction technologies envisage high labour intensity at every stage where the workforce is worth its weight in gold

The possibility of employment of our compatriots will, of course, be an argument in favour of the project. But working on a construction site is a tough physical job. And we hardly believe that in the conditions when people are too spoiled with an office job and the services sphere, with widespread alcoholism of “blue collars” there will be a big flow of people willing to replace migrants at a facility at 25 below zero outdoors. Especially in Moscow, a haven for “white collars.”

In conclusion, I would like to note that on paper it is a great plan. If it becomes possible to reform the education system in the construction sector, it will be a big step forward. There is a chance we will see our young professionals with equipment, a decent salary and a good social package.

I think it won’t be to completely get rid of migrants, and there is no need for this. At the moment, our construction technologies envisage high labour intensity at every stage where the workforce is worth its weight in gold. Our compatriots’ unwillingness to do the donkey work must be compensated by the possibility of working for migrants. Moreover, President Vladimir Putin who noted the impossibility of our economy’s operation without migrants very clearly spoke about this. We cannot help but agree with the president.

It is interesting how this plan will be performed, if this will simply be a populist statement to satisfy the public that is tired of the abundance of migrants, especially in big cities or will finally turn into a significant reform of the sector. Time will show.

Artur Safiulin. Photo: Roman Khasayev
Reference

The author’s opinion does not necessarily coincide with the position of Realnoe Vremya’s editorial board.