At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.
In this article, Steve Tombs argues that keeping construction sites open is putting workers and their families at unncessary risk from coronavirus. Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology at The Open University.
One Law for the Poor …
As Greater Manchester police arrested and threatened with pepper spray a man who said he was delivering food to vulnerable family members, drones tracked then ‘named and shamed’ cars as they drove through near-deserted Derbyshire countryside and Cambridge police patrolled shopping aisles of non-essential items in Cambridgeshire, there is one place where the lockdown has not taken effect at all – construction sites.
The closure of the non-essential economy ordered as part of the general lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus took effect from 23rd March. As Blacklisted construction union activist and author Dave Smith has noted, “Immediately after Boris Johnson’s speech, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government Robert Jenrick tweeted ‘advice for the housing, construction and building maintenance industries’ which stated that ‘if you are working on site, you can continue to do so.’”
And as I write, more than four weeks after the Prime Minister’s declaration, construction workers are still exposing themselves and their communities to the virus, and possible death, for the sake of luxury flats and retail developments – effectively coerced into working or simply not being paid. Dave Smith and others are engaged in a campaign to Shut the Sites and pay every worker. This is a matter of pressing social justice. It is also a matter of all of our lives.
If we want to understand why a clearly non-essential sector of the economy has been allowed to proceed relatively untouched by the current lockdown it helps to look briefly at its economic power.
The construction industry is probably the last remaining heavy industry of any size in the UK and is integral to its economy – central and local government are the largest customers of construction industry services, and the industry is central to the myriad of local and regional regeneration schemes across the UK, as well as to flagship infrastructural projects like HS2, Crossrail and Johnson’s (probably fabled) new hospital building programme.
According to a HoC Briefing Paper in Dec 2019,
- The construction sector contributes £117 billion to the UK economy, 6% of total economic output.
- There are 2.4 million jobs in the sector, 7% of UK total; self-employed jobs in the construction sector account for 37% of all jobs, almost three times the proportion in the whole economy (13%).
- There are 343,000 construction businesses in the UK, 13% of the total.
In short, the sector enjoys structural power. Moreover, this power is augmented by the fact that the UK industry is dominated by a relatively small number of major contractors – in effect, a cartel, not least one which David Whyte and myself have detailed in the past as criminogenic.
Given the size and concentration of the sector, and its centrality to the economy, it is unsurprising that it enjoys privileged access to the political sphere. The major companies – such as Amey, Balfour Beatty, Costain, Kier, Lang O’Rourke, Morgan Sindall, Skanska UK and Sir Robert MacAlpine – are linked into the formal political process in the UK through a series of personal and institutional links, via their numerous trade associations, and no doubt by the fact that construction companies and property developers are significant donors to the Conservative Party.
A Hostile Environment
As a labour intensive industry, labour costs are significant within construction – and this helps to explain why it has never been worker-friendly. It has a long history of anti-trades unionism and attacks on health and safety, since both impede and slow production, adding costs and eroding profits. This antipathy to worker protection and to trades unionism is no better highlighted than in the ongoing Blacklisting scandal.
In 2008, in the UK, it was publically revealed that some 3,000-plus building workers were on a ‘blacklist’, preventing them gaining employment, mostly as a result of trade union health and safety activity. Such practices are far from unknown in the UK – for example, the Economic League had similarly operated as a clandestine anti-union information-gathering unit between the early 1970s and early 1990s.
The latter evidence of a blacklist had emerged first in an Industrial Tribunal initiated by Manchester electrician Steve Acheson. The now collapsed and disgraced building firm Carillion was found to have unlawfully dismissed him from the Manchester Royal Infirmary site. During the hearings, the head of the company’s personnel department revealed that Acheson had been on a blacklist of ‘known troublemakers’. In 2008, following those revelations, the UK Information Commissioner launched an investigation, as part of which, in February 2009, a search of the offices of a company trading as The Consulting Association (CA), found files which showed that 44 building firms paid between £25 and £28,000 per year for information on the blacklist in financial year 2008-09. This was only the start of a long legal and political battle, during which the staggering extent of state collusion in the maintenance of the blacklist was exposed.
Keeping health and safety activists away from building sites is a very knowing strategy – for the construction sector is consistently the most dangerous in Britain. For example, the most recent statistics by the Health and Safety Executive show that, on a five year rolling average, in terms of numbers of deaths, the construction sector has the highest number of fatal injuries of all sectors in Britain. In terms of the rates of fatal injuries, the rate of fatalities in the sector is three-times the all-industry rate. Meanwhile, construction also has a higher non-fatal injury rate than the all-industry average. And it also has very significant levels of occupational illness – for example, it records a higher number of musculoskeletal disorders than any other sector. It is worth noting that HSE data omits significant numbers and categories of deaths, injuries and illnesses, not least amongst the self-employed. And these make up a sizeable proportion of the construction industry workforce, where there are over a million workers registered as self-employed.
So historically the sector has been, and remains, one with a very poor health and safety record – and one where employers have sought to bully, often illegally, workers into accepting this state of affairs. Yet historically and even now in the context of the pandemic, workers are threatened or summarily sacked if they speak out about safety on site – risking their future employment.
From Social Distance to Social Murder
So we have a very powerful set of companies – hardly known for being law abiding – overseeing an historically dangerous industry. Now added into this toxic mix is the Government’s decision to keep sites open – albeit with guidance that workers ‘socially distance’.
The Construction Leadership Council (CLC), located within the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, and which works “between industry and government to identify and deliver actions supporting UK construction in building greater efficiency, skills and growth”, has issued three versions of ‘Site Operating Procedures’ since the start of the Government shutdown to ensure “social distancing” on sites.
The most recent, on 14 April, notes, amongst others things, that where “the social distancing measures (2 metres) cannot be applied”, then workers “should work side by side, or facing away from each other, rather than face to face” and “Keep this to 15 minutes or less where possible”. The scientific basis for these no doubt highly protective measures has yet to be published. They would be laughable were they not to be so deadly.
Of course, such social distancing simply cannot be achieved in one of the most labour intensive industries, and our mendacious authorities will know that on sites, in canteens and huts, and as they travel to and from work, construction workers are exposed to, and are unwitting carriers of, the coronavirus. What is more, the Health and Safety Executive, the body which might have helped to oversee compliance with basic health and safety law – which would surely result in sites being shut – has, in the past fifteen years, had its enforcement capacity virtually completely undermined. Instead, in fact, it has signed up to this sham of social distancing guidance for building sites.
Keeping the sites open has undoubtedly added to, and continues to add to, the spread of the virus and so to loss of like, amongst construction workers and their families, and across our communities. In my view, it’s criminal negligence. It’s state-corporate manslaughter. It is the unavoidable and unnecessary cutting short of lives for the sake of profit – or, as Friedrich Engels in his classic 1845 book, The Condition of the Working Class in England termed it, social murder.