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Countering the race to the bottom
Having been born (1958) and brought up in one of the most cosmopolitan areas of Britain, Crumpsall/Cheetham in Manchester, I have known from an early age never to judge a person by the colour of their skin, religion, spelling of their surname or accent.
Colin Trousdale, Manchester trade unionist
So when I was presented with a problem on the Manchester Royal Infirmary (MRI) site in October 2006 of British workers being replaced by Polish migrant workers I could look beyond the Daily Express-fuelled uproar that ensued on site.
During a meeting in the site canteen, it was established that the British workers (glaziers) had refused reinstatement as one of their number was being kept out for contacting the Express and the Polish workers were staying.
I asked the UCATT union site convenor and regional officer if they were making positive attempts to recruit the migrant workers and prevent them being used as pawns by the Australian-owned Bovis Lend Lease to drive a wedge between workers and drive down wages.
When they told me 'No' I duly issued all the lads with TGWU application forms in Polish and a contact phone number for a Polish recruitment officer.
But the Polish workers became conspicuous by their absence in the canteen. When I approached one of them, he told me that their gangmaster had told them to throw away the forms and avoid contact with me as I would get them into trouble, sacked and deported.
Scared, they avoided me like the plague, apart from Fridays when they, to a man, donated to a collection for three locked-out electricians on the site, as did the Somalian general labourers - something some Manchester-born electricians failed to do.
In April 2007, I was working at the Cargills wheat plant in Trafford Park, Manchester. This site had been split in two to avoid paying major project payments.
I was a member of the shop stewards' committee at Boultings Electrical Contractors. We negotiated a site agreement where all operatives were taken on cards-in [taken on as employees, as opposed to any 'self-employed' or agency arrangements]. A 50p increment was put on the rate.
We then got wind of six Polish 'sparks' being employed through an agency on a remote part of the site. When we questioned the management we were told that they were being employed directly by the American owners who were acting as principal contractors.
Further enquiries revealed Boultings providing materials and exercising working control over these lads.
Rate for the job
We then made further enquiries validating the lads' qualifications and then insisted that they be taken on the cards and paid the site rate. (They were being paid £10 an hour. The agency rate is £14/hr and the site-negotiated cards-in rate £13.08/hr.)
We were successful in getting the lads taken on the cards and getting all the benefits of the national agreement, ie – holiday pay, lodge allowance, a flight home once a month.
We also issued them with union application forms in Polish. But due to the area official dragging his feet, they had not become members by the time the company finished them.
Before leaving, all the lads voluntarily contributed to a fund for four scaffolders, three of whom were killed in a crash on the way to work.
I hope this goes some way to dispelling the myth that these workers are somehow undermining the British construction industry.
The ones I have met are just working lads trying to earn a living being exploited by unscrupulous bosses. We should befriend and help these workers. Get them in the union, stop them (and us) being exploited.
In The Socialist 1 November 2007:
Environment and socialism
Workplace news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
National Shop Stewards Network
Workplace news and analysis