Socialist Worker

The human cost of the construction site boom

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2069

Before the recent launch of a summit on safety with the construction industry, Peter Hain, the work and pensions secretary, said, “I will not tolerate an increase in construction deaths. Booming house building, yes. Booming infrastructure, yes. But not with the blood of workers in the foundations.”

In reality, Labour’s policies are directly enabling carnage on building sites up and down the country.

Last week 20 year old Reece French died in Plymouth after being hit by a falling skip full of bricks, and 18 year old Gareth Ritson was killed on a construction site in Troon, Ayrshire.

Gordon Brown says he wants three million new homes built by 2020, but at what cost?

Brown wants them to be built by the private companies whose vicious pursuit of profit led to a 31 percent rise in construction site deaths over the last year, with 77 workers losing their lives.

Construction is an under-regulated industry. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that nearly one in three construction refurbishment sites put the lives of workers at risk.

The HSE inspected 1,586 contractors on construction refurbishment sites in June and July. Enforcement orders were served on 426. Shockingly the HSE stopped work on site immediately in 244 cases because “there was a real possibility that life would be lost”.

Last year 39 people died on refurbishment, repair and maintenance sites. Instead of being able to increase its number of inspections, the HSE has been experiencing budget cuts in real term since 2002.

Accidents

Around 85 percent of accidents reported to the HSE are never investigated and many never get reported at all.

Employers are able to get away with this because the 400 frontline inspectors can only stretch so far – and numbers are set to drop to 360 by next April. The HSE will have to make further cuts of 5 percent a year between 2008 and 2011.

Polish worker Zbigniew Swirzynski was killed on a construction site in Liverpool in January. Nobody had a record that he was on the site on his first day of work. He was a victim of the drive to casualisation in the industry.

A bogus self-employment culture denies workers basic employment rights and means that they do not have access to independent safety representatives.

For instance, the employment status of a worker is currently not even recorded when they are killed at work or involved in a major accident.

House building companies are entirely reliant on workers who are registered as self-employed.

Many companies try to get away with the bare minimum safety measures and training. No large or medium-sized company has ever been convicted of corporate manslaughter. No director of a large or medium-sized company has ever been convicted of the offence.

The aim of subcontracting is to produce a multi-layered false economy. As the number of participants in the market increases, so the opportunities for squeezing workforce costs are enhanced.

Wages are forced down, and the responsibility for paying for training, holiday, sick leave and pension rights is displaced down the subcontracting chain onto the workers themselves.

This false economy forces cost savings to be made at every layer, and it is now deemed too expensive to train workers on the job. This means that subcontracting encourages deskilling, in turn increasing the risk of death and injury at work.

Multinationals

The companies behind subcontracting aren’t small operations – they are huge multinationals. The industry is wracked with corruption. The building bosses run blacklists to keep trade union militants off sites.

When former building boss Alan Wainwright gave evidence of the operation of blacklists in the construction industry to an employment tribunal in July, his evidence went uncontested by the building companies.

Wainwright’s allegations were revealed in Socialist Worker last year. And despite their warm words on construction safety, New Labour has ruled out extending the limited gangmasters legislation that applies to agriculture to the construction industry.

John Hutton, the secretary of state for business, said that existing regulations could deal with abuse of workers better than an extension of the Gangmasters Act.

One consequence is that gangmasters who can’t get licences to work in agriculture are working legally in construction. On top of the appalling conditions, that means that in order to drive down conditions of workers some gangmasters will sell the “cards” enabling people to get work for £150.

The government response to all this is a forum, with Hain calling for building workers to have a better “understanding” of health and safety.

As if the dangerous drive for profits in the construction industry could be halted if workers read some more leaflets.

Hain may offer the unions some rights in the house building sector,

but the bosses have little to fear from his forum.

There are simple solutions to the deaths in construction. The cuts in the HSE should be reversed and inspections increased.

Company bosses should be jailed for HSE lapses, the blacklist rooted out of the industry and new house building should be council housing on unionised construction sites.

New Labour’s commitment to the market means that it will do none of these things – and Peter Hain will have blood on his hands.

For more on the constuction industry blacklist go to » Scandal of constuction industry blacklist (8 April 2006, #1995)


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Features
Tue 18 Sep 2007, 19:15 BST
Issue No. 2069
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