Republican News · Thursday 02 March 2000

[An Phoblacht]

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 day.

``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 trade.''

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 of apprentices.''

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 against another.''

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.''


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