Following the government’s lockdown decree on Monday evening, all non-essential production is supposed to be stopped. But Tory ministers have been purposefully evasive and ambiguous about whether this applies to construction sites, which are a breeding ground for disease and contagion.
It is clear that construction bosses are seeking to dodge the rules, putting profits before lives. Of course, their friends in the Tory Party are more than happy to turn a blind eye to such reckless behaviour.
The hypocrisy is startling. Ordinary people are expected to respect the lockdown and stay at home, in order to curb the spread of the disease. But it seems that these orders do not apply to the fat cats, who are allowed to keep business running, even if this threatens lives. As ever under capitalism, there is one rule for the rich, and another for the rest.
As shown by the reports below, construction workers are rightly incensed by this arrogant attitude, and are moving to take matters into their own hands. Already, there are reports coming in of spontaneous walkouts by workers in protest against the lack of health and safety measures provided by management.
This includes the inspiring example of 1,000 workers at the Moy Park site in Seagoe, Portadown, in the North of Ireland, who have walked out and are refusing to return to unsafe conditions. Similar developments have been seen already in Italy and Spain. This is the way forward - for workers to organise and strike to shut down production.
As we reported yesterday as part of our ‘Name and Shame’ campaign, the construction bosses and others will try to keep their companies going for as long as possible, attempting to get away with murder. Their only imperative is making money.
The profit motive of the bosses will continue to cost lives. The Tories cannot be trusted to put public health before private wealth.
But we cannot wait for these rogues and scoundrels to act. It is therefore up to the workers themselves to shut down the sites through walkouts and strike action.
The trade union leaders must mobilise the labour movement to stop production and fight the epidemic. And the Labour Party should demand the nationalisation - under workers’ control - of any big business that refuses to comply with the public health measures required to tackle the disease.
All the capitalists care about is their profits. Only the power of the organised working class can challenge the bosses.
Looking out for big business
We sat around the TV on Monday evening, waiting nervously for Boris Johnson to make his announcement on the government's combative strategy for tackling the coronavirus pandemic. But in the end, all we got was another set of half-baked measures that were either too late or that didn’t go far enough.
Total lockdown measures have been called for by the WHO (World Health Organisation) and numerous public health experts internationally. These steps are essential in this make-or-break battle with this highly infectious and deadly disease.
But Johnson’s decrees, although welcome, fall far short of what is needed at this stage. As ever, whilst paying lip service to saving lives and stopping the virus, this buffoon of a Prime Minister appears to have one eye on his big business backers.
Workers who are deemed to be involved with non-essential work or who are able to work from home have been ordered to stay away from their workplace, in order to reduce social mixing and prevent the contagion of covid-19.
However, Michael Gove has asserted that manufacturing and construction – not in any way directly involved in the war against coronavirus – should continue as normal. Workers in these sectors are merely told to maintain a safe distance from their co-workers.
Having spent a lifetime in the steel-construction industry, I would like to expand on the unbelievable idiocy of this statement. These are clearly the words of someone who has never done a day’s hard work in his life.
Let’s take the construction work currently in progress in and around London, for example.
Still the epicentre of construction work in Britain, London absorbs thousands of Britain’s construction workers, and has done so for many years. ‘Travelling men’, as we are commonly known, are drawn to London to find employment – especially during these dark days of austerity – as work in other areas has disappeared. Workers from every corner of the British Isles are currently working there. They make their way to the capital by every means of transport available: usually the train, if they can afford it; or bus and coach; or in a shared car.
These workers find ‘digs’, which takes a huge slice of their wages. They then usually use the tube to get to their worksite, or a bus if their digs are near the job.
This is Jubilee line early this morning. Non essential manufacturing and construction must be shut down and workers sent home on full pay. #ProtectThePeople @OwenJones84 @jeremycorbyn @SadiqKhan @LenMcCluskey pic.twitter.com/2LL3QFriXo— Left Unity (@LeftUnityUK) March 24, 2020
To save money, they will generally find shared rooms. As many as six will share a room, sometimes sharing a toilet and bathroom. The standards will depend on their financial situation, or the availability of places to stay. They will live on takeaway meals.
It is difficult and expensive to find accommodation in London! Sometimes they will find a house on the outskirts of the city, shared by twelve or so others, and sharing a kitchen and a toilet.
They will make their way to work, clock in, and change into their work clothes in a crowded sweat-stinking cabin. They will work in teams, sometimes in confined areas. It is very rare on a construction site to work alone, due to the nature of the work and the safety aspects.
At dinner time and during tea breaks, they will all be in a cabin, sitting on benches side by side. The size of this will depend on the workforce. At the end of the shift they will form a queue and clock out. Then they must rush to the tube or bus, and squeeze on.
There are no cafes open now, due to the lockdown. Restaurants are also locked down. In any case, they would have been out of the question given the money that most are on.
At the end of the week, after living in what must be the most contagion friendly environment you could imagine, not to mention the most infected city in Britain, it’s on the Tube again to the train station, and back home to every far flung city, town or village in the country.
There couldn’t be a more disease spreading group of workers in our society. And Gove talks about them keeping a safe distance from one-another!
This is happening now. This is a lockdown in name only. We must stop this lunacy. We must protect our people on the front line.
This means stopping all non-essential work like construction and manufacturing. This is the only way to contain the most deadly disease to strike the planet in living memory.
Johnson’s strategy is a watered-down plan based on looking after big Tory Party donors.
This is a war on an invisible enemy. We need a total lockdown. This is only possible on the basis of nationalising the economy and our services - and under democractic workers’ control, with those on the frontline making the decisions.
Only in this way can we genuinely tackle coronavirus.
The joys of self-employment
Dire consequences for the health of construction workers are unfolding in front of our eyes. So how did these workers arrive at the position they are in now?
The days of real national agreements for union members in construction - with genuine input from shop stewards and the rank-and-file - are long gone. Unfortunately, union leaders have accommodated the bosses in nearly every aspect in recent decades.
National agreements in construction now are, in reality, paper agreements. The vast majority of workers in the sector are not employed under agreed terms and conditions; many are not even union members.
Instead, there is a scourge of ‘bogus self-employment’, with no rights afforded to workers whatsoever.
Up to 1500 #construction workers in #Manchester luxury flat development right now as the gov continues to insist building sites are safe & firms will not pay 'self-employed' who doesnt turn up. No hand sanitizer on entire site. This is not essential #shutthesites .@AndyBurnhamGM https://t.co/Q3c4AEyqSM— Dave Smith (@DaveBlacklist) March 25, 2020
Of course, workers have one right: when the boss says ‘right this way out through the site exit’ to any worker who makes a stand against injustice. This is especially the case with trade union activists, who are frequently blacklisted.
The ruling elite and the bosses have deployed a ‘divide and rule’ strategy against the workforce, praising the so-called ‘joys of self employment’. But now these ‘joys’ are turning into their opposites, becoming ‘horrors of self employment’.
Turning on the TV and browsing social media, the public has seen in the last few days how construction workers are being exposed to covid-19. When it comes to safety, all the bosses are concerned about is whether workers are on site, ready to go each morning with their hard hats, hi-viz, safety specs and gloves on!
All the bosses care about is making a sizable profit for themselves and their shareholders. Everything else is of little-to-no importance. They are in the business of making money - and plenty of it - for themselves. The workers have no say; no voice.
The construction sector - like the rest of our economy - needs to be owned and controlled by the organised working class, for the benefit of local communities and wider society.
As with workers across the board, construction workers now have the stark choice of fighting for a socialist society, or experiencing first hand the barbarism of capitalism.
The events taking place will dramatically shape the consciousness of construction workers - and all workers - and push people into organising, taking action, and fighting back against the bosses.
WHO IS WILLING FOR A NATIONWIDE DOWNING OF TOOLS .. IF WE ALL STOP THEY HAVE TO LISTEN .#shutthesites— Even Stephen (@evenstephen00) March 25, 2020
Keep calm and wash your hands
I am an electrician working in Barnsley, and thought I would contribute with the conditions on the site I have been working on. At the time of writing, there has been no cancellation of work. In fact, at a site meeting last Friday, management insisted that the site would continue as planned until shut down by the government.
There are no health and safety measures in place, bar a request to wash hands more. There are no additional measures for social distancing. Several workers, including myself, have made provisions, such as wearing gloves and secluding ourselves where possible. But this has neither been requested from the top, nor have measures been put in place to make this easier.
The attitude on site has at least shifted since the government’s recent change of approach. Up until then, there was a significant lack of seriousness to the pandemic. However, this changed after the imposition of more serious control measures.
On Monday, there was a definite nervousness amongst previously unflustered workers. And while the site was no less busy, people were secluding themselves more, and were leaving a little earlier than normal.
Given what Johnson announced in his Monday evening speech, I have no reason to believe that the site would close early, unless a worker reports a confirmed case. This would require both the worker to actually report the illness, and the management to make an ethical decision. Even then, with the proximity that site workers have shared in the previous few weeks, it would likely be too little, too late to stop the spread of contagion.
The most notable change in attitude came after the switch in messaging from the government. I find it infuriating that this did not come sooner. It seemed inevitable that this lockdown would come eventually - so why was it held off for so long?
I find it hard to believe that the man who drove a Brexit bulldozer through a polystyrene wall couldn’t come up with a simple, effective message to spread the correct attitude on the virus.
Digging and disease
I am a worker in construction and infrastructure. I work for a commercial archaeology company on major road and infrastructure projects such as HS2.
Last week, we received a message from upper management that we needed to keep coming in to work. Meanwhile, management is working from home.
We were told that we're at low risk of infection as we work outdoors, often far away from each other. However, we all share transport and welfare facilities. There can be 15 of us on site sharing one toilet in a portacabin - and this is before you include other external contractors.
When illness goes round at work, it always spreads among site staff first, because of the conditions we work in. We literally name our yearly flus after the site they originated in. There’s no science behind the idea that we - the diggers - are less likely to infect others.
We’ve only been deemed a ‘lower infection risk’ because it's more convenient for the business. We can’t work from home, so they need us to come in.
Most of the site workers are younger and pretty healthy, because of the physical nature of our job. The likelihood is if one of us got the virus, we would spread it to others without even knowing.
A bunch of us had a tense impromptu meeting with management. We were told that there was no point in us self isolating. If we got the virus, we were certain to spread it anyway, because most of us live in shared ‘diggers houses’ of 6-8 people. You couldn’t make it up.
Whose fault is it that we live in overcrowded housing anyway? We’d all be able to afford apartments if we were paid enough. Anyway, this was proved in practice when I came in to work one morning recently to find out that half the site teams had to be stood down.
Overnight a whole bunch of people had developed a cough, and one person had a fever. If our work had been shut down a week earlier, when it was clear that this was developing into a crisis, this may not have happened.
Yes, our job is important. If we all don’t go in, roads don’t get built because they don’t get planning permission. But nobody is using those roads right now anyway.
It’s convenient for some businesses that they can now have their staff work from home. But for those of us workers in the UK who can’t, we need to seriously think about whether it’s worth us risking the health of our families to put more money in the bosses’ pockets.
But we are also caught between a rock and a hard place. Most archaeological companies (and all the other outsourcing companies that work in the sector, from machine drivers to cabin cleaners) won’t guarantee pay beyond the next job.
We're on short term contracts and low pay. If we don’t come into work and we lose our jobs, then we won’t be able to pay our rent and food. But if we do come in, we risk our health. The only solution is to nationalise these companies, shut down unnecessary work, and guarantee pay.
The work must go on
This will come as no surprise, but the bankers are prioritising profits over people. Specifically, Barclays Bank is putting the lives of over 100 workers at risk by refusing to halt construction on a major development at Centre Street, Tradeston, Glasgow.
Over 40 construction workers have been asked to remain on site until at least Friday (27 March) by their sub-contractor, Grahams Construction, who fear that Barclays will sue for breach of contract if they do not continue the work on site.
Grahams are just one of a number of contractors and sub-contractors, so there will likely be up to 100 other workers on site also.
The recent coronavirus pandemic is truly highlighting the divisions of class within our society, and how capitalism favours those at the top over the most vulnerable at the bottom.
The next year will show who will be impacted by this pandemic, and who the capitalist system and big business governments favour. The working class across all sectors and industries will be impacted. This includes one of the most important sectors of the economy: construction.
Within construction, the coming months are going to shine light on the clear class divisions in the industry.
There are three distinct stratums within construction sites in the UK. Firstly, there are the main contractors (MCs), who actually get the work from the big business clients. They are made up mostly of managers and other high-level professionals. The most well-known example of a MC in the UK would be Carilion. As we know, through their short-sighted profit-chasing, they created turmoil for tens of thousands of workers.
Then you have subcontractors, who are specialist trade firms. They then employ the actual site workers - the trades people and labourers.
In London, the workforce is made up largely of migrant labour. Many of these workers are sole traders, or are on zero-hour contracts. Any closure of building sites will see them completely exposed and left without work. They have no protection in the form of sick pay, etc.
Those in the main contracting firms have the capability to work from home, and will have some protection provided by their billionaire companies. They will be safer and more secure in these hard times.
This is why we need a planned economy, where production is owned and controlled by the working class. Only then can there be support for all workers, no matter what their role in the economy.
Struggling to cope
I work as a contractor archaeologist for a council archaeological unit. In my case, I do both field-work excavations and spend time in the office. I’m on a zero-hours, temporary contract. Even at the best of times, I work a maximum of 20 hours a week. This can change week-to-week without me knowing until Monday, or sometimes later!
With the coronavirus, my last day of excavation was Monday. It’s not possible for me to work from home, as I don’t have access to the field or software I would need, and the council has closed and stopped work on future projects until after the crisis.
This means that I will not make any money for the foreseeable time until things go back to normal. However, I am relieved, as the condition I’d have to work in would put me and my family in danger of getting the virus very easily. To stay at an appropriate social distance would be very difficult, as we work on what archaeological features there are, and the sites I work on are very small.
There’s been no running water at any of the sites I have worked. I have to bring a bottle of water and soap to wash my hands. I’m lucky in a sense, since I live with my parents, so I will be ok. But I cannot imagine how other workers would cope in this situation.