For years, major construction companies have been squeezing more profits out of workers by forcing them to be employed indirectly via agencies, who take them on as "self-employed" workers. This bogus self-employment saves the construction fat cats millions in national insurance payments and other employer contributions, whilst simultaneously providing workers with less take-home pay and more precarious employment terms and conditions.
It is estimated that approximately 250,000 workers have been wrongly employed under such bogus self-employment terms, in which employers' liabilities are simply passed onto workers, resulting in an estimated loss of income of at least 25% for those working in construction. Furthermore, this bogus self-employment is officially tax fraud; but guess who is likely to get punished - not the bosses or the agencies, but the workers of course.
Following new tax and insurance measures proposed by HMRC and introduced in the 2014 Budget, however, it is now illegal for agencies in the construction industry to pay workers via payroll companies. This means virtually outlawing the use of agencies by construction companies, forcing them instead to take on workers directly, rather than as "self-employed" workers.
Agencies are only meant to be used as a last resort, towards the end of a contract, not at the beginning of a three year contract for large projects, as has been happening with projects such as Crossrail.
All construction workers should be employed directly on a PAYE (Pay As You Earn) basis under national agreements. Construction workers have being fighting for this simple right for years and Unite the Union are now backing the cause with a campaign for construction companies to play by the rules. This campaign will be raised (and likely passed) as official policy at the upcoming Unite policy conference in June.
Workers on two sites - one in Crawley and another at one of the Crossrail sites in London - who were employed through an agency recently downed tools and called site meetings, where demands were made that they being taken on directly by NG Bailey, a large electrical contractor. After walking off site, the demands of these workers were met within hours, with written confirmation from management. Stewards were elected and many workers ended up joining Unite.
Such action should be replicated on many other sites. Direct, mass, collective action by workers is clearly the way forward, as demonstrated by these examples.
London Unite Construction branch held its last meeting in Red Lion Square in Holborn recently as they couldn't fit the 120 angry workers into the room where meetings are normally held. This demonstrates the fury of construction workers that exists regarding this issue of bogus self employment and exploitation in the industry via agencies.
The willingness from the rank and file to fight back is most definitely there. What is needed is the full backing from the Unite leadership. The rank and file will show the way in this fight, and the union leaders should take up our demands for organisation and action.
As always, similar militant action must be taken across the country. The workers united will never be defeated!
For more information, visit Site Worker - the newsletter for rank and file construction workers.