My life at work: divide and rule in the construction industry

Submitted by Matthew on 24 June, 2010 - 10:18 Author: David

David is a construction worker in Jersey.

Tell us a bit about the work you do.

I am a manual labourer who is currently working on a large roadwork project. The work involves mainly digging holes and doing the jobs that the tradesmen won’t.

There are three types of people who work on this job. Those who work for the main contractor, whose name I will not mention, and those who are contracted through various agencies.

What are your pay and conditions like?

I am, unfortunately, an agency employee, meaning that instead of the £10.50 employees from the contractor enjoy I get only £8. This means losing a total amount of £112.50 per week for doing the exact same job as everyone else.

We work come rain or shine and are not always provided with the correct equipment. For example, at the time of writing the weather is 26ºC, yet we were expected to work without proper sun protection i.e. sun screen or protective hoods. We are not provided with water, yet are penalised and chastised for going to the nearest shop (a five minute walk at most) to purchase our own.

On the flipside of that, last week there was torrential rain, yet more then half of the men were not provided with waterproof clothing as they were employed via an agency.

This is due in large part to the structure of the employment hierarchy. It can often be found on any given day that there are more “bosses” than employees. Above the humble labourers such as me there are gangers, foremen, supervisors, site supervisors, project managers and company directors — all of whom supersede each others’ authority on areas of the job. This leads to lack of proper equipment and tools, but on a more important level an atmosphere of mistrust and uncertainty.

It is not uncommon for a man to be sacked by one “boss” for following the instructions of another “boss”. Or for one person to be loaded with all the work of his gang because of serious cronyism amongst the bosses.

One of the biggest problems I see is the xenophobic racism instilled in people by the lack of employment caused by the recession. This in its own turn creates a certain tribalism in which different nationalities will not work with others, or a certain animosity will occur when they do.

This is a great tool used by the bosses as they play one ethnicity against another, extracting extra man hours at a cut rate because they threaten to give the job to X if Y won’t do it.

What do people talk about at your work?

When we get our breaks, two half hour breaks for nine and a half hours, the talk is of usually whatever the tabloids tell my colleagues to think about — women, beer, football. And then we complain about the job and the bosses. However when you mention socialism you are more often than not met with a mix of ridicule, racism and fear.

Ridicule comes from the older guys who still believe that Labour is staunch left and that any other leftist party just wants to turn us into Stalin’s Russia.

The racism and fear comes from the new breed of nationalist who thinks that everything should be blamed on “those bloody immigrants coming here and working for a pittance”. And when you point out that surely the employer who offers these desperate people substandard pay and conditions should be blamed, a barrage of “bollix, they shunt be ere in the first place” “and you don’t see me going over der du ya” soon follows.

There are some of the older generation on the job who are in agreement with me, but for them it’s just been too long a fight so they decide to fight no more.

If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

If I were to be given a magic wand and the ability to change the job I would make the workforce a united and unionised force because, as Connolly said, “Without the power of the Industrial Union behind it, Democracy can only enter the State as the victim enters the gullet of the Serpent”.

There are unions available, e.g. UCATT and Unite, but there are only two members on site. Still this is not a grandiose fantasy but an achievable reality and I believe that the entire socialist struggle should be viewed as such — whether you work on a building site, or in a building society.

Workers of the world unite!

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