In this letter to Socialist Appeal, Roy Bentham of the Blacklist Support Group and Unite the Union discusses the perilous conditions facing construction workers, as the bosses and their Tory friends keep sites open. #ShutTheSites!
The construction industry and the coronavirus remain an anomaly.
After this weekend, the picture is still as clear as mud. The Construction Leadership Council issued an update last Thursday stating it is still safe to work on building sites, and that social distancing could be reduced from 2m to 1m. They also went further in their revised Site Operations Procedure (SOP), saying that it was a good idea to keep to 2m, but not mandatory.
Still with me? I’ll keep going.
This statement was then retracted a few hours later after an avalanche of negative feedback. Again, like Tory business secretary Alok Sharma’s letter on April Fools Day, it appeared they were – and are – making it up as they go along.
I decided to dig up some information on this organisation, calling themselves the Construction Leadership Council. I didn’t have to look far to find that this unelected body was made up of Conservative politicians, millionaire business owners, PR gurus, and a host of entrepreneurs with glossy LinkedIn pages.
Not anywhere could I see a trade union rep – or, for that matter, a worker. It was just non-producers on a grand scale, amid a blueprint for making money – at the detriment of those who actually build the projects en masse; a Who’s Who of capitalists, no less. To cut to the chase, it has become a mass case of the blind leading the blind.
As a blacklisted worker, I have seen first-hand this contempt, disregard and aloofness of these chief executives and managing directors. They are now masquerading as representatives of our industry and, by extension, of us the workers – just as when we exposed the scandal of the Consulting Association.
Is it any wonder that there is still a general mistrust when such statements are being made from their plush offices? (And now from their cozy bedrooms, given that they wouldn’t be seen within a mile of these perilous workplaces they are sending us to.)
As we go into another week of national lockdown, we should be grateful to all those working in the hospitals – temporary or otherwise, like the magnificent new Nightingale in London – as well as those working in the power stations, telecoms facilities, care homes, and those keeping our roads and motorways moving for the emergency services that are saving lives on a daily basis.
However, we do not need building workers being told to go to commercial sites, like the plethora of high-rise student accommodations, luxury flats, swanky hotel refurbishments, house renovations, etc. etc. still being built. All we are doing is clogging up those same roads and public transport networks, risking the lives and health of construction workers and those in the NHS and care services.
We do not need to be taking the PPE from those on the frontline, just to fit out hotel rooms or a shopping park out in suburbia.
These are non-essential works.
Please explain how your government justifies sending tens of thousands of #construction workers onto cramped non-essential projects is good for public health? Our co-workers & family members will pay the price. #ShutTheSites #PAYEveryworker https://t.co/30C1gfM4Vl pic.twitter.com/TPlTboF076
— Dave Smith #ShutTheSites #PAYEveryworker (@DaveBlacklist) April 1, 2020
In construction, there is a term called the ‘hidden killer’. It’s something we have dealt with for decades within the industry. It too attacks the lungs before a very slow and excruciatingly painful death.
The first reported loss of life was over a century ago. It’s made of rock and was once imported from all over the world. It’s name is asbestos. Around 2,500 die of it every year just here in the UK.
In the space of three months, coronavirus has usurped asbestos as the real hidden killer.
Along with agriculture, we are one of the two sectors with the most reported injuries and fatalities. Sites staying open only places more pressure on an already overburdened NHS and an ambulance service, which are being run into the ground.
Our self-styled, self-appointed captains of industry – fatally for us – are currently like rabbits caught in the headlights.
To make historical comparisons, it is worth recalling the 1985 TUC conference and quoting from the then esteemed leader of the TGWU, Ronald Todd, after a contribution from Wapping’s scab electrical union leader, Eric Hammond.
Todd rebuked the EEPTU President by replying to his take on the miners’ struggles, and Arthur Scargill in particular, stating that they were ‘lions led by donkeys’. Todd retorted he’d rather be led by donkeys as opposed to jackals.
The parallels to where we find ourselves 35 years on are stark. We are the lions being sent precariously out of lockdown as cannon fodder. As an animal lover, like the much missed Todd, I’d hasten to add that jackals might be too good a term for this lot, who are sending us out for our daily exposure of Russian roulette.
With that and Todd in mind, we need our trade union leaders to step up to the plate – since the Construction Leadership Council clearly is not for us. They equate to the political construction arm of a party that is losing credibility in all forms during this pandemic.
Not wanting to be in any way humorous, the Tories are making even the US President across the Atlantic look efficient at the moment. Looking the other way, across the Channel to France, we could do with taking a leaf out of their book. Along with ‘test, test, test’, the other bywords must be: think quarantine. Think lockdown in its purest form.
And with that in mind, and before it’s too late, we must also take control of the narrative. That’s us, the Labour Party, under our new leader, and the trade union movement too.
Lives will be lost needlessly through greed otherwise. That’s the simplest way I can put it.
C’est non jeux sans frontières. This is no game without frontiers.
Coronavirus will spread like wildfire unless construction sites are shut
By Dave Smith, Blacklist Support Group joint secretary
The vast majority of construction workers are decent hardworking people. None of them want to put their own or their family members’ lives at risk by working in a situation where coronavirus infection is likely.
Yet despite the apparent lockdown, photographs of packed building sites have been all over the media for days. When construction workers go to work, they share minibuses, travel on packed tubes, eat in crowded canteens, go up in full hoists, use palm print entry systems and live in barrack style accommodation on site.
Construction is a dirty dangerous place at the best of times with notoriously poor welfare facilities, where the very process requires people to work in close proximity. Coronavirus will spread like wildfire in these circumstances.
The blame for this giant threat to public health lies with the greedy major contractors and clients continuing to enforce penalty clauses for delays; forcing building workers to come into work. Blame also lies with the government for not ordering all non-essential construction work to close.
Ministers make speeches from lecterns emblazoned with the slogan ‘Stay Home Save Lives’, but building workers are still expected to go to work. There appears to have been orchestrated lobbying by the large contractors who are also major financial donors to the Tory Party. It’s all about the money.