Inequality in the shadows of `Celtic Tiger'
Building workers fight for safe sites and proper working conditions
There were 1,900 serious accidents in 1997. With 110,000 employed that year in construction, these figures give building workers a 1 in 50 chance of suffering serious accident
Last summer Sean Treacy, a well known republican from the Heath and his colleague, Robert Dunne, from Robertstown, were killed on a building site in Newbridge when a 15-foot trench fell in on them. Seán had just been filling in a couple of days work for a friend. It was never explained why there was no shuttering on the trench, but everyone knows there is a hurry on a site to get the job finished in time. Time means money. Shuttering takes time. The lack of it took lives.
Sean and Robert were two out of a total of 22 men, 29 if you include other construction activity, who died at work last year. Since the start of 1996 there have been 49 deaths on building sites - deaths that should never have happened if proper safety standards had been implemented.
Lurking under the tower cranes which dot the skylines of Ireland's major cities is a hard, vicious, dog-eat-dog race to complete the job, spurred on by greed.
One in fifty chance of being maimed
Last year's figures for serious accidents are not yet available, but over five years between 1992 and 1997, they have risen by leaps and bounds. There were 1,900 serious accidents in 1997. With 110,000 employed that year in construction, these figures give building workers a 1 in 50 chance of suffering serious accident. As it is, there are around 150,000 employed in construction, about 17% of the total labour force, and in 1998, deaths in this industry represent 69% of fatalities.
There is a legal obligation on every employer to make sites safe, and the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) has been effective in enforcing proper standards on sites, and in ensuring that contracts are feasible and don't include time clauses which would necessitate impossible hours and working conditions. The Authority has initiated hundreds of prohibition notices and has brought a number of successful prosecutions of building companies.
Only last month, the HSA went to the High Court and closed down the Dawndale Development site at the Old Mill, in Clondalkin, until the company met the requirements imposed under the Act by the authority, and provided adequate welfare facilities for workers. The site was closed down for two weeks while Dawndale put things right.
But, according to HSA spokesperson, David Denny, although more resources have gone to the HSA recently, it has only 60 full time field inspectors for all building sites, and with the best will in the world, this could not meet requirements.
Direct labour is key to safety levels
``It just isn't acceptable - that a building worker has a 1 in 50 chance of being maimed or killed'', says Brendan O'Sullivan of the Builders and Allied Trade Union (BATU). The union has been to the fore of the fight to get better health and safety on the sites. Only this year, the union itself instituted a course with the ICTU and FAS to train and accredit union health and safety people. Another course starts up shortly.
``The problem is,'' says O'Sullivan, ``that the building companies are not prepared to release their workers to join the course, and companies are a million miles away from recognising that a qualified union inspector should be on the site, on full wage, all the time. But this is the only way we are going to make any impact on the appalling level of fatalities.
``And this is what the dispute over direct labour is all about. Getting direct labour on the building sites, stopping the practice of subcontractors, is the key to proper safety in the construction industry.''
BATU workers agree. BATU members say that ``the subbie brings brickies in often on a casual basis. Often they are not on the cards, PRSI or stamps. The subbie doesn't pay sick pay, nor wet time, when the job is rained off. There is no holiday pay, redundancy money, nor pension entitlements. The subbie system puts working conditions on the sites back into the last century.
A subbie often recruits young inexperienced workers who'll work for less money. BATU workers have often claimed that the subbie pays cash into the hand, and, as they alleged in the case of the Cramptons dispute at Clonskeagh last year, it was a precondition of employment by the subbie there that the building worker sign on the dole.
Subbie system inconsistent with site safety
All incentives work towards saving costs and cutting corners, which means safety on the site gets neglected. At present there are four sites in Dublin city and county which are at a virtual standstill over a protest by workers who claim that the Building Company, Michael McNamara & Co., is still using the subbie system for brickies.
Last October, two workers were jailed for flouting a court order to desist from picketing sites at Merrion Road and Conyngham Road, in Dublin. The jailing of the two men led to building sites closing down all over the country. As a result, most building companies have come to agreement with BATU on the employment of direct labour.
Not so Michael McNamara, one of the top ten building companies in the country, which has over £150 million-worth of building contracts this year all over the country, including the four sites where activity has slowed to a trickle. The company claimed a turnover during 1997 of £76 million, the last calendar year for which figures are available.
Strange things happening
Strange things are happening on these four sites in Dublin city and county. The sites are more or less at a standstill, but Sean McBennett, spokesperson for the building company on the sites, Michael McNamara & Co., says he doesn't know why.
This is particularly odd, because McNamaras have taken court proceedings against the Builders and Allied Trade Union (BATU) and named individuals to recover the costs to the company of what appears to be a virtual shut down on these sites over the last few weeks. ``It makes partnership in the economy look like a sick joke,'' comments one building worker.
But Sean McBennett, McNamara's spokesman, didn't sound like a happy man when he spoke to this reporter. He wasn't willing to explain why McNamaras employ direct labour on some of their sites outside of Dublin but not on the sites at Beaumont Hospital, Clondalkin Civic Offices, City West, nor, ironically, even on the Leinster House extension site, where TDs hope to have more offices and leisure facilities.
When asked why McNamaras don't employ direct labour on these sites, he replied quite assertively that McNamaras had the right to employ whom they chose. He was reluctant to say how much the company might be losing through the slowdown in work on these sites. Sean McBennett however, said that all those working for Kilburn Developments, the subcontractor on these McNamaras sites, were paying PRSI, tax, insurance, and all got their holiday money, wet money and had their redundancy and pension entitlements secure.
Civil proceedings have to wait until the courts resume in the autumn, but it is beginning to look as if the TDs are going to have to wait for better labour relations, if not safer building sites, before they get to enjoy their leisure facilities to the full in the Leinster House extension.