Loads of money is being made on the building work that’s taking place around Liverpool at the moment. But what about the actual builders? Adam Ford spoke to Terry Eagan 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 builders in the city?
To be honest, most of the people I know are travelling 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 is causing these problems?
Well I think the subcontractors like to carry their own teams. There’s also a preference on their part to 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, 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. That’s the cowboy nature of the industry manifested.
Is there are resentment between Liverpool builders and migrant builders, from countries like Poland?
There is 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 identify them as the problem. What they won’t they won’t address is 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 the 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 the problem we have with the HSE. They don’t have enough people on the ground. The issue of them monitoring what’s going on and enforcing regulations is a real problem. 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”.
There seems to be a Catch-22 situation, in 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. There’s a problem because of the way it’s gone over the last twenty or thirty years, in terms of union activity, the number of union activists. We’ve got to create links – for example if we’re looking at the issue of regeneration – with the 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.