Back to index of Nerve 10 - Spring 2007

Elysian Fields crane collapse, January 2007Building Up to 2008

Loads of money is being made on the construction that’s taking place around Liverpool at the moment. But what about the actual building workers? Adam Ford spoke to Terry Egan of the UCATT trade union, who’s been a bricklayer for thirty-six years, about the state of play in the city.

What’s the mood amongst builder workers in the city?
To be honest, most of the people I know are travelling in from outside. So while there’s a construction boom going on, it can be extremely difficult to get work. For example, I’ve just spent five months on the dole, and I went on every site in the city, and I was at the job centre three or four days a week.

What’s causing these problems?
Well I think the subcontractors like to carry their own teams. They also try and avoid local labour, certainly there’s hostility to any idea of organised labour. There’s a preference for more migratory labour; they’re easier to control and contain. There’s a whole strata of so-called employment, and at the bottom you’ve got people being taken on very short term, often on very low pay…the minimum wage. One of the things the unions consistently argue for is direct employment, so people are taken on by a proper contractor and given a proper contract. One of the huge problems in the construction industry is your health: you’re five times more likely to be killed at work if you’re a construction worker. Last year there was something like sixty deaths.

Is there resentment between Liverpool builders and migrant builders, from countries like Poland?
There are certainly those who would foster that resentment – the BNP and others. Migrant workers are readily identifiable when you talk to them, so there’s a tendency for some to point to them as the problem. What’s not addressed is that it’s the nature of the contract, the nature of the employer. Agencies pay Polish workers half of what we would consider the going rate. So you can’t address the problems of local workers without addressing the problems of the migrant workers.

There have been two deaths on sites in the city so far this year. After the second, a representative of the Health and Safety Executive said more deaths should be expected before the Capital of Culture preparations are finished. How do you feel about comments like that?
It shows what the HSE are like. The issue of them monitoring what’s going on and enforcing regulations is a real problem. They don’t have enough people on the ground. I worked for a subcontractor on a job last summer. Their attitude to health and safety was a once-weekly toolbox talk, which lasted about five minutes. One of the foremen said: “Right, we’ll get this shite out the way and then you lazy bastards can get back to work”.

It seems that the best workplaces are unionised, but the employers are hostile to workers organising. How can this be overcome?
There’s got to be a campaign which involves the active members of the trade union, who to be honest are very few in number. I’m actually one of the ‘youngsters’ in my union branch…I’m fifty-two. We’ve got to create links – for example if we’re looking at the issue of regeneration – with community groups out there, who are concerned with issues of employment, issues of equality and the rest of it. There’s a common interest in addressing some of these issues. We also have to look at much more overtly political campaigns. We tend to get tied up with reacting to issues on one or two sites, we’ve got to look at an equality agenda for all.

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