The building industry - a new look at the union's role
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
``Who would have thought that conditions in the building
industry, which is experiencing boom time as never before, could be
poor?'' asks Nicky Kehoe, Sinn Féin Councillor who is a brickie
himself. ``It's a typical example of the Celtic Tiger. Those at the
top, the big building companies, are making a fortune, but those at
the other end of the scale don't see many of the benefits.''
Last week, the Dublin Alliance of General Construction Operatives
(DAGCO) took to the streets to protest at the low rates of pension and
sick pay. The pension scheme is mandatory but only some two-thirds of
workers are covered. On full contributions over 35 years, a builder
could only expect a pension of £164 per month. Sick pay would be £23 a
``A lot of my friends from school wanted into the building industry
but they couldn't get an apprenticeship,'' says brickie Kieran Kehoe.
``Instead, they had to take jobs in factory work. I was lucky and got
a sponsor, but after four months the building company broke their
contract and me and five others were let go. My apprenticeship would
have been ended if it hadn't been for the union.''
To get an apprenticeship, a young person has to find a sponsor, who
then is supposed to enter into a contract to keep the apprentice on
for the four years it takes to qualify. The apprentice gets training
both on-site and also on block release with FÁS. With the
increase in apprenticeships, there is severe pressure on places on
these courses. Some young people have had to wait up to two years to
complete their training.
A spokesperson for FÁS says that they are making provision
to extend their apprenticeship courses to meet the demand. But still
some apprentices have had long waits before they can get onto the
courses to qualify.
``There is a great shortage of apprentices in the trade,'' says
Neville Farrelly of the Builders and Allied Trade Union (BATU). ``A
lot of builders don't want to take on apprentices, and when they do,
the pressure of time clauses on the job often means that builders are
reluctant to release their apprentices for off-site training,''
We are worried about what is going to happen to these lads who
often are working as labourers on the sites, but who will have no
qualification as builders. When the boom in the building industry
ends, which it surely must sometime, these lads will not have a
The problem, of course, goes back to the subbie system of
employment. ``Subbies don't want the bother of employing apprentices,
supervising and assessing the apprentice's knowledge and skills.
Apprentices are excluded from the new minimum wage agreement. Instead,
they are paid on a sliding scale of between 75-90% of the minimum
wage, depending on length of time served.
Young people, attracted by far higher wages than they would get on
apprenticeships, go onto the building sites as general labourers,
untrained and without skills. They can become a hazard to themselves
as much as to their fellow workers. Safety standards on many sites are
low, evidenced by the number of people who have been killed on
building sites over recent years. Inspections by the short staffed
Department of Health and Safety are at best spasmodic. Where the
builders are subcontracted, there is not even a union presence to look
out for safety. Unsafe conditions on sites are encouraged by prevalent
penalty clauses, where builders are often working against time to get
the job done within the period stipulated.
``The situation is crazy,'' says Sinn Féin Councillor Nicky
Kehoe, a longtime member of BATU, ``and it all comes from the greed of
some builders who want to use subcontractors, and who oppose direct
labour. The whole thing should be in the hands of the union - health
and safety on the sites, the apprenticeship scheme, even the training
As it is, the battle against the subbies is slowly being won. After
the long dispute with building contractor MacNamara's, the company
agreed a settlement, and withdrew threats of court action against the
workers. Neville Farrelly goes on to point out another big advance:
``It is much harder now for building companies to play off workers
from outside of Dublin, or workers from the north, against local
workers. BATU's battle against the subbie system has made it much
harder for the building companies to play one set of workers off
But there are still major problems ahead, as the DALCO workers'
protest last week highlighted.
``The building trade is hard, and after 40, a man isn't able to
keep his health if he goes on working at that rate,'' says Nicky
Kehoe. ``The time has come for the union to move into the 21st century
and look at the practices in some unions in Europe. There, the union
not only looks after apprenticeships and after workers during their
working lives, is concerned with their health and safety on the sites,
but it also takes on the retraining of workers to go on to different
work when site work becomes physically too demanding.
``Unions should be running the apprenticeship courses themselves.
We should be running and administering credit unions for cheaper loans
for our workers, we should be retraining builders for office jobs or
jobs teaching the trade, so that our members move through careers in
the building industry. The days are gone where union fees just pay for
strike pay on disputes. We need to offer real benefits to members
through their working lives. And above all, the union needs to be
there when the boom times end.''