Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/201/8468
Construction: British Industry's Killing Fields
IN THE year 1998-99 there were 66 workers' deaths in construction, 78 in 1999-2000 and this year there have been an average ten deaths per month. But the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) only prosecute in a tiny number of cases, with many of the fines imposed less than £1,000. Against this terrible background, The Socialist looks at the killing fields of Britain's construction industry.
FOUR PEOPLE died in the Hatfield train crash, paying the price for deregulation and privatisation. Building workers are dying through a similar hodge-podge of contractors and subcontractors. Big business sacrifices everything, including workers' lives, for profit.
Over the last 20 years the construction industry has changed. Large contractors now employ very few workers directly, they rely on a vast network of small sub-contractors.
In 1997, just over 136,000 building workers were employed by firms with less than 13 workers, whilst the largest firms only employed 44,500. Yet the big firms dominate the trade.
As well as a massive rise in sub-contracting, 'self-employed' workers account for about half the building workforce. Yet while the vast majority of these workers may be 'self-employed' under the tax system they are really part of the workforce without employment rights.
By this method, the contractors are able to avoid responsibility for national insurance, sick and holiday pay, redundancy pay etc.
This, in turn has had a big effect on training within the industry. Apprenticeships, for example, fell from nearly 9,000 in 1985 to 2,500 in 1994. This means there is a chronic shortage of skills, as well as direct safety training.
The confusion and communication breakdowns between the many different sub-contractors working together can mean unsafe working practices, exacerbated if incentive payments are used.
All these factors, combined with a low level of trade union organisation on many sites provide a lethal cocktail of risks for workers in the industry.
THE GOVERNMENT is the biggest client in the construction industry, responsible for 40% of all work. They could play a vital role in setting and insisting on safety standards, yet there are only 128 safety inspectors to cover over half a million sites in England, Scotland and Wales.
Regulations introduced by New Labour in 1999 have actually encouraged the use of 'self-employment' in the building industry.
Workers who become safety reps are routinely sacked for carrying out their duties. For example, building union UCATT is currently dealing with a case in west London where a worker was sacked for calling an ambulance after a fellow worker fell 12 feet.
One of UCATT's main demands is for roving safety reps, which the HSE is piloting at the moment. The pilot scheme in agriculture however ran into problems when the National Farmers Union adopted what amounted to a "get off my land" approach. Similarly, the Construction Confederation - representing 5,000 contractors, recently voted against the idea.
As Sean Prophet argues, at the very least any effective scheme must be backed up by laws which allow safety reps access to the sites in the first place and give them powers to stop dangerous jobs.
Similarly, charges of corporate manslaughter will only be really effective if the directors face prison for a workers' death, rather than just the site foreman.
Workers Protest As Safety Conference Is Downgraded
Deputy prime minister John Prescott called a safety conference in February this year. It was originally to be a full day event with the major players in the industry; contractors, clients, trade unions and families of victims. But it was down-graded to a three-hour session, closed to ordinary building workers and bereaved relatives.
The trade unions and other safety campaigners lobbied the event. Sean Prophet explains what happened:
"On the day of the summit, round the corner in a church which was being renovated, a wall had collapsed on a bloke and killed him. So whilst the summit was on, he was still under the ground.
"The union had a mountain of hardhats outside the summit showing how many building workers had died that year. So blokes came round from the church job and laid another hard hat on the mound.
"Also at the safety summit most of the bereaved relatives weren't allowed in. 600 people were there, mostly employers' representatives. So we got a big group of builders around the relatives because they said they wanted to go in.
"Two loads of old Bill were called - yet some of the people there were 80 years old.
"Eventually the police had to go inside and tell the Health and Safety Executive to let the relatives in. Which was about the only useful thing which came out of the day."
Getting Away With Murder
"I THINK what we have to get across is the carnage there is on sites. We have to get it across to the government and the health and safety executive...
"I think the only time that real action will come out of this is when building workers themselves decide they have had enough.
"One of the things we have been calling for is roving safety reps and greater protection for safety reps on site. I know from bitter experience that when you get safety reps on site you are usually counting in days the time they are left on site before they're dismissed, moved or harassed or whatever.
"I haven't really noticed this Labour government has been any better than the previous Tory government on health and safety.
"The Health and Safety Executive still appear to be underfunded, they don't appear to be on sites, they don't appear to be taking proactive measures on sites.
"The only way you will get across to construction companies that they have to improve health and safety is you when start to hit the people who have overall responsibility through corporate manslaughter."
Ron McKay, UCATT official for Essex and London South East Region
Killing People At Work Should Be A Criminal Offence
"IT'S GOING to build up where we have hundreds and thousands of workers saying: 'No more, we're not standing for any more deaths on sites.' That's the main thing that will change things.
"The government see that there has been a change in attitude and people expect more regarding safety. People do not expect a 60% increase in deaths and serious injuries on sites.
"So publicising deaths and injuries on sites puts the politicians on the spot and they don't like that.
"We've had to struggle with this Labour government all the way to get a ban on asbestos for example. Blair was going to do a deal with the Canadian prime minister, which is the biggest exporter of asbestos. It was a right fight. We had many demonstrations, including national demonstrations and yet we had all these promises which they haven't carried out.
"Also, they should have implemented corporate manslaughter laws by now. There's a pilot study going on about roving safety reps, which is very important. But building employers are resisting it like mad. But we have got to make a breakthrough.
"If I had two minutes with Tony Blair the most important things I would tell him to address are: make changes to say that killing people at work is a criminal offence; and I'd ask him why aren't you working as fast in stopping workers being killed at work as you are about petty thefts and other crime."
Tony O' Brien, Construction Safety Campaign.
Safety Reps Should Have The Law On Their Side
"MY WORST experience in the construction industry was when a friend of mine was killed. The company didn't even supply a pair of steps for him. One day he stepped on a transformer and fell down a hole.
"He was in hospital and his mother had to come over from Ireland to turn his life-support machine off.
"Workers are getting more organised and groups like the Joint Sites Committee (JSC) have been absolutely brilliant, there's no doubt about that. They've brought things to a head in many areas on this issue.
"Unions in the construction industry survive with the management's say-so. I think sometimes the unions rattle the sabre but I'm afraid that's all it is.
"I've never heard of any union in this industry say they are going to close a site down because of safety. All they do is talk about so-called partnerships. You need people like the JSC and the Construction Safety Campaign to really hammer the point home.
"I would like to see company bosses jailed if they neglect safety. Also I would like to see unions get off their backsides and stand up for their members and not for the bosses. I was on a job at the Royal Opera House and they sacked 30 people to get rid of me as a safety rep off the job.
"Safety reps should have the law on their side and they should be guaranteed that they can have the right to stop a job without being victimised."
Jim, an electrician and AEEU member.
The Socialist demands:
- All construction workers to be employed directly by the main contractors, with proper employment and trade union rights.
- Legal protection and full training for safety reps, giving them the power to shut unsafe jobs down.
- For company directors to face imprisonment if a worker is killed on one of their sites.
- Nationalisation of the building and construction industry under democratic workers' control and management.
- Nationalisation of the land. Democratically agreed plans should be drawn up to provide good quality housing and other facilities for all, without ruining the environment.
The Socialist spoke to Sean Prophet, of the Joint Sites Committee (JSC). The JSC campaigns for decent pay and working conditions in the construction industry.
ROVING SAFETY reps are a great idea. The HSE is running a pilot scheme but they've had to go to the construction employers and ask them to help them run it. The employers have said: 'We're not interested'.
They've already changed the name to 'workers' safety advisers'. And to get the pilot scheme running they're going to have to find employers who are already 'union-friendly'.
So sites which are already organised will have people coming in probably forewarned, to do a quick inspection on the basis of: 'Don't upset them too much so everyone will say what a great idea it was'.
In the building game at the moment everyone has to have a safety inspection periodically anyway. Small ten-bob subbies obviously haven't got their own safety officers. So what they do is employ freelance ones to come in and have a look.
Of course there's an inevitable financial conflict of interest. If you're being paid to visit the site and you give them a really bad report, they won't employ you any more. They'll go and find someone who will tell them there's nothing wrong.
The only thing they'll ever pull anyone on is not wearing their hard hat or not having their boots on. Something which isn't going to cost them any money. As soon as there's any money implications, they won't book it.
So when the roving safety reps come in are we going to be the same as them? Go and see the employer and be polite?
There's no point inspecting a 'union-friendly' employers' site. The places where you really want to go are the rotten horrible places where they won't let the union in.
In places like Sweden and Australia they have roving safety reps who can issue notices themselves to stop the job and fix the dangerous parts of the site. The problem we have is the level of union organisation on many sites.
Fifteen years ago, people in the trade union movement calling for corporate manslaughter to be used against employers were considered to be 'mad'. The Construction Safety Campaign, Hazards and the JSC have campaigned on this and it became national union policy. Last year the TUC adopted it as policy.
In 1999, 80 people were given prison sentences for cruelty to animals but no-one was sent to prison for murdering a worker. But if anyone does get sent down, it will be someone like site foremen who are only allowed to get away with disregarding the rules because the company employs them to do that.
We want one of the managing directors in prison. But of course what Labour are introducing isn't going to be that at all. There's talk about banning them from being a director - what a big deal.
The deputy prime minister turns up at the construction safety summit with all the employers there and you expect him to lay down the law about all these deaths. But all we got was: "We need a bit more training and then we can improve".
Everyone on the cards
The main demand should be for everyone to be taken on the cards. You can have as much education as you want, roving safety reps and corporate manslaughter but it's no good as long as the entire industry is so deregulated.
20 years ago if you walked past a Balfour Beatty building site, the vast majority of people there would be working on the cards for Balfour Beatty. Nowadays a big building site might have 600-700 people working on it with Balfour Beatty on the hoarding but they will only be employing 10-15 people. They will all be the managers. Everything else will be sub-contracted out.
As soon as work is subcontracted, people work for a price, rather than being paid the daily rate. So the way work is organised is asking for people to cut corners.
The quest for profit by the speculators, major contractors and cowboy subbies has meant health and safety has gone out the window.
Workers Memorial Day 28 April.
March and rally organised by the rail union RMT, supported by the Construction Safety Campaign.
Assemble 10.30am Grant Road, Clapham Junction, London SW11.
March to rally at Clapham rail crash memorial site, Spencer Park.
Further information from the London Hazards Centre: www.lhc.org.uk
In The Socialist 13 April 2001: