Secondary contractors are striking for pay and conditions in an increasingly privatised construction industry
Early Monday morning, despite it being the last working day before half-term, over 20,000 building workers in the UK struck in the build up to their 24 November national day of action.
The strike was part of a campaign by HSE Management union, backed by COSLA (Civic Services Northern Ireland) and the University and College Union (UCU), with staff employed by secondary contractor Sutcliffe – housing, engineering, archaeology and engineering, housing retrofit projects for housing associations, school, social housing – all demanding a £3 per hour pay rise and improved hours.
Post 10,000 union jobs since 2010, the sector is more privatised than ever before and the emergence of a new graduate entry scheme, managing contractor, and education contractors are further widening the industry’s already diverse and competing pools of superannuated labour.
The strike saw local housing associations (LHA) providing jobs in Merseyside and Plymouth, with the Surrey Housing Trust ramping up work on its Scott Place development in Bournemouth, and UCU members in local authorities including Camden and Rotherham.
It also saw the Bolton Workforce Technical Centre on Merseyside lock out and throw open their doors to the picket line, while residents of Southern Rail’s Lighthouse House in Southampton saw their platforms closed down by strikers who’d been joined by train drivers and parents from St Ann’s Primary School.
More than 50 jobs went on strike at Brighton Railway where members of the Unite union took action for seven hours. Another 50 job losses were set to take place at a National Car Parking Ltd site in Guildford – the site was closed completely, and almost £100,000 was lost from the company’s weekly revenue.
The EDX project on Manchester University campus
The EDX project in partnership with the University of Manchester
The Cambridge post-production outsourcing contract
The Napier Park contract in partnership with Bectu
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As well as an increasing focus on short-term employment, construction workers are increasingly seconded on a project and then returned. This is particularly the case with part-time workers where employers are short of skilled staff but short of other workers.
The secondment system is, however, not perfect. It can work in the interest of both parties – a contractor and a part-time worker can both thrive in the arrangement – but workers have warned that a systematic lack of enforcement of contracts, long periods of no pay, and partial payment for non-works is rife.
The strike broke out on a work at the Halcyon Sky school in Southampton. It is funded and managed by Hertfordshire County Council. A spokesperson for Hampshire county council pointed out that it is a scheme in partnership with the university with all three parties involved achieving a higher rate of graduate employment than if they were separated.
The union Unite said: “It should not be acceptable that part-time workers are being made to pay for the mismanagement of work by bosses without the mandatory financial commitment by the school.”
Staff at the Halcyon Sky school said that they had hoped for a 12-month commitment from the school and staff had suffered financially and physically as a result.
This week council bosses ordered the headteacher to offer 3 hours of extra lesson time per week for each teacher, but only if they cut her budget by 15%. In the context of the forthcoming strike at the school, Ed Murphy, the school’s deputy headteacher who was previously at King’s College London, said that further warning was needed. “Even less would be acceptable.”
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The COSLA chief executive Barry Sutton spoke of the importance of the negotiation process: “The employers and the unions have sat down with two ministers to try to reach a deal, and the support and engagement of the Council was there to help the dispute process through to its final resolution.”
It remains to be seen whether the town centre shows its best face again after last Monday’s strike. The strike caused minor disruption, but a significant chunk of the county council’s budget was forced into the red.