(Picture Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bisgovuk/9191500878)
After Boris Johnson’s address last week, my phone was vibrating endlessly with messages:
‘Looks like I’m back at work tomorrow then’
‘Social distancing is over lads’
‘Surely we’re not being sent back yet, there’s still thousands of people dying.’
The contradictions on show in these messages are damning. The Coronavirus crisis is by no means at an end, but the Prime Minister’s words indicated an expectation that things were due to go back to normal. The anxieties about this state of affairs were apparent for all to see in the group chat.
Before I was elected as a Labour Party Councillor, like most of my family, friends and community, I was a construction worker. For those in the sector, Boris Johnson’s brash address ‘encouraging’ them to get back to work was an encouragement to put their health, family and livelihood at risk. The anxiety, instability and uncertainty they had felt for the last 7-8 weeks had finally peaked.
This is a fragmented but vast sector. Its 2.5 million-strong workforce is nearly double the size of the NHS. Resumption of construction work will mean that three of the country’s largest workforces (including healthcare and supermarket retail) will soon be back at work on a daily basis. The ONS has found that the highest rate of COVID deaths occurred among this so-called ‘low skill’ group of workers. Sunday’s announcement ‘encouraged’ these workers back to work, without any instruction or provision of PPE and adequate safety measures. These oversights expose either the insincerity or ineptitude (or a winning combination of the two) inherent in the Tory pledge not to overwhelm the NHS by risking infection outbreaks and increasing contact. It made it clear that this Government is placing the needs of the economy above people’s lives and wellbeing.
And what about domestic construction workers? Are sparkies, plasterers and plumbers expected to renovate people’s homes without protection just to make rent? Doing so will not only put workers at risk, but their clients as well. Will they even be able to find work if demand drops through clients’ fear of allowing people into their homes? Will clients even be able to afford such works if they too have lost jobs?
Boris’s language of ‘encouragement’ gave little to those I care most about. It falsely implies freedom, optionality or choice. But, the reality is that few in this sector have that privilege, and the choice at hand is bleak – risk financial insecurity or risk infection.
This lack of protection and care for construction workers is not a new phenomenon. For years, this huge workforce has been largely forgotten. With little-to-no employment rights, and Trade Union organisation nigh on impossible, anyone with involvement in the industry can tell too many appalling stories- stories of bad practices and mistreatment that simply would not be tolerated in any other industry.
I often hear about construction workers being threatened with blacklisting from multi-million-pound construction firms (who have a monopoly on the labour market) if they dare to make an injury-at-work claim after accidents that are no fault of their own. There are myriad stories of workers not being paid for work that they have completed, and the recurring culprits are large contractors who pay their directors at the very least healthy six-figure salaries. All too often, when workers are paid, someone in an office, who has rarely even visited a building site in their life, will keep a huge portion of it for themselves.
When I worked on site, I was astounded by how commonplace stories like this are. They are stories that are often told with a shrug of the shoulders and an attitude of “shit happens”. This attitude is born of a depressing normalisation of such behaviour, coupled with the threat of being unable to find additional work, and in turn, an inability to pay a mortgage, for food, for school uniforms.
These invisible injustices and worries have – like many of the entrenched inequalities in our society – been rendered visible by the coronavirus. Confusion over the self-employment coverage scheme has led to anxieties across the sector. Large numbers of these workers have reluctantly been working anyway, often in unsafe environments, for fear of not being covered by the scheme – or due to a lack of trust in this government to actually follow through on its promise to protect people’s pay.
Since the Government’s application form went live, I have heard of workers discovering they’re not covered and some getting substantially underpaid, with one worker only receiving £1,500 for 3 months. A friend of mine stated that he will be looking to leave self-employment as soon as possible because of its inherent lack of job security. After being in the trade for all of his adult life, and the country about to enter a recession, this will prove to be difficult.
Furthermore, addiction & suicide rates are disproportionately higher in the construction industry. Building sites across the nation are filled with posters on how to overcome addiction and mental health issues, but outside of that, little is done to tackle these tragic and, again, often silent, killers.
The 2019 Labour manifesto stated: “We will set out a strategy for a flourishing construction sector with a skilled workforce and full rights at work”. Given the current political & economic landscape, the Party should release a detailed and substantial package for construction workers: safety protections at work in the aftermath of Coronavirus, a strategy to empower Trade Union activity and enable representation, an end to blacklisting without a due process, and measures to tackle exploitation and low pay.
Not only is this the right thing to do for these workers, for the country, and for the productivity of the industry, it would also benefit the party at the polls.
In the years that I was in the trade, I seldom heard a complimentary description of the Labour Party. There was little love for the Conservative Party either. As someone with a decent handle on both the world of construction and the world of politics, it is my wholehearted belief that voter turnout in this sector is incredibly low, with many disheartened, disengaged, and disenfranchised – feeling that politics does nothing for them, and is done by people who are nothing like them. Reports suggest that the construction industry will have over 2,700,000 workers by 2023 – which is a huge constituency just yearning for the Labour Party to tap into it.
The Tories like to think of themselves as the champion of the self-employed. They gush about the self employed as ‘wealth creators’, mistakenly implying that all self-employed workers are employers and business owners, which,of course, is not the case. Many self-employed workers, whilst appreciating the apparent freedoms that come with self-employment, are construction workers, still open to exploitation, poverty, as well as work-related mental health issues.
The Labour Party must challenge this myth, and empower workers in this industry to truly take more control over their lives and their Labour. Now is the time for the Labour Party to, once again, definitively become the Party of Labour – and labourers.