Building Workers
against the Black Economy

Public Meeting told of 40 deaths in last 3 years

Rank and file building workers, for the most part members of the Building & Allied Trades Union, have set up a group called 'Building Workers against the Black Economy'. They held a public meeting on 29 January to let other trade unionists know why they have been involved in action in Dublin against Cramptons Builders and why this particular dispute is symptomatic of terrible problems for workers in the building industry.

The meeting was well attended by many building workers, as well as trade unionists from other areas. It was addressed by Neville Farrelly, Bill O'Brien and Dave Sullivan from the Bricklayers Branch of BATU, and Maurice Sheehan of the Mandate Union, who was speaking as a delegate from the International Centre for Trade Union Rights. The practice of hiring workers on C45 certificates has been increasing in recent years. The C45 is issued to sub-contractors so anyone hired on that basis is considered to be self-employed and therefore not entitled to holiday pay, travel time, subsistence, or any of the other hard-won rights which workers in direct employment can expect.

The C45 has recently been replaced by the RCT1 form, which has the same effect of limiting the rights of the workers and the responsibilities of the employers, who claim that it is the sub- contractor who should be looking after tax and PRSI. Since the use of C45 and RCT1 certificates became endemic, there has been a significant lowering of safety standards on sites and a corresponding increase in the number of deaths. Successive partnership agreements have promised to do away with the abuse of C45s and the attendant problems while Partnership 2000 specifically declared that this practice would be eliminated, except in extreme circumstances However, according to Mary Harney's report to the Dáil, 242,976 C45s were issued last year, up to 31 October 1997! In an industry employing 110,000 workers, only 34,500 are appearing in Revenue Commission records as paying PAYE.

The Cramptons dispute began when workers on a site at Dublin City University where an injunction was granted against picketers and anyone supporting them. The same action was taken on the Cramptons' site at Clonskeagh, where five workers were sacked. The injunction granted by the High Court banned picketing, leafleting, carrying placards or speaking about the dispute in a 'provocative fashion'. The judge ignored the fact that Cramptons were acting illegally by knowingly employing sub-contractors who were in turn hiring men on a cash-in-hand basis.

It was pointed out at the meeting that the ICTU's guide to the Industrial Relations Act, when it was being debated in 1990, had claimed that employers would find it harder to get injunctions against picketers under the Act because the process of referral to the Labour Court would make it difficult for employers to cover up illegalities! Judge Kelly used the Industrial Relations Act against the picketers and threatened them with gaol. The injuncted activists who have been taking part in the mass pickets are still under threat.

The sub-contracting system being used in Cramptons and by certain other builders has created a climate of carelessness about safety on sites, because employers have no direct responsibility for the workers. The Labour Force Survey found that there are on average 1,900 accidents per year on sites, but the Health and Safety Authority reckons that as much as 85% of accidents go unreported. An accident is described as 'serious' if the worker needs more than three and a half days off work because of it. These have to be reported, but the average time off reported to the HSA has been sixteen days. The number of accidents has multiplied by more than 120% since the advent of self- employment (another word for the black economy).

The District Court has fined employers who are responsible for accidental injuries on site an average of £250 for a serious injury. A Zoe Developments employee who had a leg amputated as a result of an accident was paid £1,200 in compensation by the employer. Back in the 1980s, when the building industry had mainly direct employment and legal protection for workers, there were only six fatal injuries in the whole decade. The widespread deregulation of the industry means that the workers and the unions have no control over the sites. Illegal practices are rampant.

As a result of the campaign of mass pickets on Cramptons sites in Dublin over the last few weeks, the Construction Industry Federation has been forced to deal with the issue of sub-contracting through C45s. The CIF has been denying that any abuse exists, although its members have been coercing young builders into working on RCT1s. Many of these workers are eager to go on PAYE because at the moment they cannot get mortgages and they have no protection in the case of accident or lay-off.

The current situation also means that solidarity among the building workers is difficult to sustain, since many of the so-called self-employed workers find it hard to maintain union membership given the precarious nature of their conditions. When the five Clonskeagh workers were sacked they were told that Cramptons was not their employer and BATU could do nothing officially to help them.

The extent to which the Industrial Relations Act can be used as a stick to beat workers was evident in the judge's ruling on the DCU case. He claimed that the union had not observed proper ballotting procedures - some ballot papers were not folded and lapsed members had not been given an opportunity to vote! Bertie Aherne was Minister for Labour when the Act was passed in 1990 and he gave strong as surances at that time that employers' complaints about the results of ballots would not be entertained, if the ballots had been properly conducted.

The Nolan judgement against SIPTU and the 1992 judgement against the NBRU were cited as reminders of how little Aherne's assurances meant. Defiance of the Act was overwhelmingly agreed by the meeting to be the only way to expose its undemocratic impetus. BATU activists and officials, prevented from using traditional trade union weapons and tactics by the injunctions against them, are prepared to go to gaol if necessary, if the terms of the Industrial Relations Act are used against them.

Various suggestions came from the floor about what could be done to fight employers like Cramptons. The many angry trade unionists present at the meeting agreed that repeal of the offending sections of the Industrial Relations Act is the only realistic solution to the ongoing problem of unscrupulous employers using the courts against workers. Other aspects of the sub- contracting scam were referred to, including the reduction in the number of apprenticeships available in Dublin to less than 20% of the agreed quota.

It was said that the CIF has tacitly approved the widespread practice of recruiting young workers in Northern Ireland to come South on a sub- contract basis, unaware of the conditions under which they will be expected to work. A BATU activist from Carlow told how the union in his area had turned the situation around and refused to deal with sub-contractors. Despite the fact that virtually all the building workers in the area are now directly employed and fully unionised, there is still plenty of money to be made for everyone. It was pointed out that sub-contracting allows CIF members to break the law by proxy. Sub-contractors can set themselves up as limited companies - they fold up and move on and neither the Revenue Commissioners or their employees can do anything to pin them down.

The emphasis for future action will be on organising each individual place of work, with activists being nominated to co-ordinate plans with other sites and others to look after the finance needed to pursue an 'unofficial' dispute. Already, some of the larger building firms have released their men for picket duty because these direct employers are being undercut by the likes of Cramptons. The group is monitoring the situation and since the mass pickets and defiance of the injunctions began, more employers in Dublin have moved to direct labour.

As one speaker pointed out, the trade union movement has been pushed back underground by the Industrial Relations Act, and much of the protest work associated with this dispute has been organised through small cells of rank and file activists. The push is on now for a wider ranging fight against the corruption of some building employers and against the way the use of the Industrial Relations Act has fulfilled the worst misgivings of its opponents.

Mary Muldowney

Correspondence to SIPTU Fightback, 22 Melrose Avenue, Dublin 3

To the SIPTU Fightback page