Irish construction workers have contributed more to the industry’s trade union movement than any other group of people in the UK, according to a senior trade union official.
In 2017, construction workers’ union UCATT merged into Unite after being formally approved by members.
Jerry Swain, a National Officer for Construction at Unite, the largest trade union in Britain and Ireland, commended Irish trade unionists through successive generations for their work, although he acknowledged union membership of Irish construction workers – as with all industries – has fallen in recent years.
“There is no other country’s workforce that have done more for the construction trade union movement than the Irish,” he said. “In my view, when we look back at history at construction industry trade unionism, the Irish have been an integral part of that and those of us who are around today have a great gratitude to those people.”
Irish involvement in the British construction industry has been constant since the industrial revolution. When canals, railways, and early large-scale civil engineering projects were being built between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, large numbers of Irish workers were involved in British construction.
After World War II, with rocketing levels of unemployment in Ireland, a boom in British construction created the conditions for the further entry of huge numbers of Irish workers into the industry. As a result, many of those workers became shop stewards and union officials.
Swain, one of two national offices for construction within the union, told the Irish World that precariousness of work was the single most pressing issue facing workers today in the construction sector.
“What we’ve created in the industry is short-termism, which reflects right through to the workers who, to a degree, have been conditioned to look at their pay packet at the end of the week rather than holiday pay and pensions provisions.
Recent research by TUC, another union, found that at least 3.8 million people in the UK are in insecure work, including agency work, zero-hour contracts and low-paid self-employment.
“You have some trades employed by the principal contractor, and they now employ nobody; that passes to subcontractors who now, in many cases, are using agencies and payroll firms to engage their workforce,” Swain said.
“If you take the payroll provision and its auto- enrollment, that applies to very few constructions simply because the way they’re employed and dressed up to look as if they’re self-employed.”
Employment in the construction industry is low when compared with previous decades, Swain said. And, according to construction economist Dr. Judy Stephenson, skill shortages are causing firms within the industry to swerve large-scale projects where traditional, high-skill work is required.
Swain added that many contractors who sign up to apprenticeship schemes often back out after projects are finished, leaving further gaps in the labour market, increasing skills shortages.
“When you look at how many bricks have been removed from construction sites in the last forty years, you should have an over-capacity of bricklayers,” he said. “Yet the training has been at such an abysmal level, that there’s total under-capacity and without important foreign labour, the industry wouldn’t survive today.
What’s required, according to Swain and Unite, is legislation for ensuring employees are classified as employees of the main company and contractors being obliged to have long-term commitments to apprenticeships.
“The industry is at this moment in a mess in the way that it employs people. It needs radical change if we’re going to build an industry for the 21st century and can meet the needs of the next decade and beyond,” he added. “We also need an industry that attracts people and treats them in such a way that they want to remain in the industry.”
By Colin Gannon