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‘We’re talking about billions stolen from workers’: Organising in the Construction Industry

Trade union density in the construction industry has halved since 1995, from 30.4% to 13.1% in 2015. 30% membership wasn’t great either; the health, education and transport sectors are still higher now, but 13% density means workplaces without any kind of representation or talk of trade unionism.

On 1 January 2017 the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians (Ucatt) merged with Unite – and now Unite is pushing in “some of London’s largest sites and amongst some of the largest sub-contractors in the country”, former construction worker Willie Howard told Novara Media.

Howard is a Unite officer – he was a key union supporter of the St. Bart’s cleaners’ dispute earlier this summer – but spoke to Novara in a personal capacity.

It’s already working. “Six weeks ago, workers at Byrne Brothers, the big concrete firm, began to organise around unpaid holiday pay. They used a petition and stickers and grievance disputes. They a formed workers’ committee.

“A director arrived in the canteen demanding to know who signed a petition. Pretty much everyone raised their hand – then someone told him to get preparing the Christmas holiday pay-out.

“Last Friday [15 December], we heard the firm will be paying out around £250k in unpaid holiday pay.”

Construction workers have been organising against systematic pressures against workers’ power in the industry. Novara spoke to Howard to find out more.

The construction industry is growing. Last January output was “29% higher than the lowest point of the last five years” according to the Office of National Statistics.  

The big construction firms don’t employ construction workers – they contract firms, sub-contractors, that then hire the workforce. Have those workers seen any of that 29%?

I remember working in construction in London during the recession, and wages were far lower, with labourers recruited by agencies getting £50 a day. It’s fair to say that wages have definitely increased for the higher grades, especially highly skilled workers, project managers.

But all tradespeople have seen large increases in daily rates, pretty much across the board, and especially in comparison to workers in other industries, whose wages have largely stagnated. This is down to the breakneck pace of construction, especially in London, and the fact we have a skills shortage across the trades.

Wages have increased, but certainly not in-line with the profits made by the major contractors and their subcontractors – part of the explanation is the increasing move to bogus self-employment.

A 2008 Ucatt-commissioned report found “between 375,000 and 433,000 workers are currently falsely self-employed.” That was 2008, remember. Now, with the major sub-contractors, about half the workers are self-employed – you know, ‘self-employed’. We’re talking about billions stolen from workers in sick and holiday pay, and from HMRC through unpaid National Insurance.

What’s the incentive for workers to become self-employed?

The incentive is you’ll get hired.

People are falsely categorised as self-employed – they have no say over their working conditions, their uniform, their start or finish time, whether they do overtime or not, or whether they work nights or weekends.

Those left on the books are faced with huge pressure to switch status, and sign away their holiday pay, sick pay, and pensions – a massive boon for the large employers, who pocket the difference.

There are several companies, Hudson and Rift, and others, whose sole purpose is to switch workers to ‘limited’ status, for the benefit of the contractors – they’re promising workers everything under the sun. The bosses often arrange compulsory meetings between workers and these firms to ‘convince’ them of the merits.

They may get a slightly higher rate, but can now be fired at will, and have no ancillary benefits at all. The indisputable growth and also day rates have come with costs that only come out when someone gets sick or retires.

Big workplaces, doing a physical job – according to one stereotype of trade unionism, construction sites should be bastions of militancy. They’re not. The efforts of the blacklisting firm Consulting Association is part of the explanation. What else is working against organising?

The reality is we are not organised in construction, but I think comparisons with other blue-collar industries – asking why they’re not organised like on the rigs or whatever – are often superfluous, to be honest.

By its nature, construction is transient. A site might be in operation for years, but a given trade might be in there for only six months – then they might all disperse, on to other sites.

Factor in self-employment by sub-contractors, which are within subbies within subbies, and you’re looking at a very different industry from manufacturing, where people work in the same plant years at a time. I don’t see the rise of bogus self-employment or that transience as end-games, though.

If we simply turn our backs on sub-contracted workers, then we may as well pack it in now – and that goes for every industry, if to a lesser extent.

Dockers in the UK in the early 20th century, construction workers in the US, and now IWGB against Deliveroo – workers designated as ‘self-employed’ have and continue to organise.

But legal designation about who is and who isn’t a worker isn’t the root problem here – it’s a lack of power. We have an entire industry culture to overturn. But we’ve been here six weeks now, and have found activist and leaders, and have launched our campaigns – they just need some direction from the unions.

I think we need to look at construction in North America. It had a lot of problems, but now, in many states, you are not getting onto a site without a union card – workers have power.

I worked on site when I was a teenager, and health and safety was unbelievable – no hats or boots, nothing. Now I can see the class politics of it. Blacklisting shows that the people at the top of the industry systematically break the law. Is it the tip of the iceberg?

Try walking around a Multiplex site with no gear and an uncertified tool, and you’ll be off down the road in 20 minutes. Health and safety on the bigger sites has improved massively.

But with work subbed out to the nth degree on big sites, cheating workers out of wages is very easy and very common. It’s something we see on a weekly basis – especially amongst migrants, who don’t speak the language or know their rights, brought over by subbies.

And there’s a lot of illegal-seeming stuff, too. A common ruse is to charge workers around £5 a week to have their pay processed by an external company. Guess who owns those external companies? The employment agencies themselves.

A lot of these gangmasters are a law-unto-themselves – and as long as the work gets done, nobody on high really cares about some poor lad from Andalusia or Romania losing a week’s worth of pay.

Unite-organised cleaners at St. Bart’s and UVW cleaners at the LSE recently showed that mainly migrant workforces aren’t ‘unorganisable’. But without organisation, working-class people without a British passport are disadvantaged against capital, relative to Brits. It might be ‘soft’ stuff, like a lack of English, but also ‘hard’ stuff, like employers using migration laws against them, threatening to call the police.

And when people, I mean some trade unionists, say ‘migrants undercut wages’, well, it can seem true: if you’re working unlawfully, you haven’t got much of a choice but to take £50 – without organisation. With it, things become very different. There are lot of people born outside the UK working in construction – how is this affecting wages and workers’ organising?

Is migration to blame for low wages? No. And there are however-many studies that prove that. Are they to blame for union weakness? Again, no – this year they’ve been at the forefront in disputes across five different unions.

This nostalgic view of a well-organised indigenous working-class, shafted by an influx of foreigners, is utter bullshit. These arguments were made about Irish workers, but it was the Irish match girls and the Irish dockers who led those working-class battles against the bosses.

Is organising migrants more difficult? Of course it is.

Documentation is an issue. Migrants tend to be are poorer, and tend more to be supporting families back – with safety no net in this country.  London is a terrifying place to be with no money. I’ve heard stories of workers having to bribe managers in order to keep their jobs – that’s very common in low-paid migrant-based industries, not just construction.

But there’s this tendency to suggest that migrants are dupes – but the person cleaning hospitals for ten hours a day is no-one’s fool. They know they’re being exploited, that their wages are too low, that their managers are bullies.

Workers need the structure and strategy from unions on how to fight back – once that’s put out there, they’re as up for a fight as anyone. Tube workers are from all over the world, and they’re leading the way in grassroots organisation, in their militancy.

Wages are low because of a lack of trade union power and organisation, not because of Filipino nurses and Ghanaian cleaners. There is a direct correlation between the rise in inequality and the decline in union membership. The working class has no colour, is every colour.

Should we be able to have honest discussions about the impact of immigration? Yes – whilst we’re rebuilding a workers’ movement in this country, without this defeatist, xenophobic nonsense.

Published 18th December 2017

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