Construction industry race to the bottom – only militant action can stop employers

Employment in the Irish Construction Industry is expected to fall to under 120,000 workers by the end of 2010, from a high of more than 270,000 in 2007. The result of such rapid jobs losses has been huge downward pressure on pay and conditions, with many construction workers been paid well below the legal minimum wages rates within the sector.

Wholesale non-payment of pensions, assurance and sick pay contributions and the disappearing on a weekly basis of many of the hard won improvements in safety on building sites are also key features of the industry at present. 

The on-going downward spiral of pay and conditions unfold despite the existence of two industry employment agreements which have force of law. The pay element of the agreements have not been increased since the end of 2007, leading to a de-facto pay decrease of these so called legally enforceable rates when assessed against increase in cost of living etc. 

It is against this backdrop that construction employers sought a 20% reduction in pay rates at the start of the year and processed their claim through the Labour Relations Commission and then the Labour Court. They argued that such a reduction would increase construction companys competitiveness and lead to job creation. When pressed on this point at the Labour Relations Commission early in the summer, they accepted that there was no evidence that pay reductions could create a single new job.  

The employers’ motivation is obvious, to squeeze more profit out of the workforce and the consequence is to create an industry wide race to the bottom. 

The construction unions accepted an ICTU proposed initiative that binding arbitration at the Labour Court was the way forward. This tactic amounted to an absolute abdication of responsibility of some of the most senior so called trade union leaders in the country. The prize for such a sell out – to remain the employers’ union of choice on building sites when union cards are to be purchased! 

The employers’ claim was fast tracked to the Labour Court. This resulted in a recommendation that construction workers pay be reduced by 7.5% with effect from four weeks after the date of acceptance of the recommendation. 

The employers are due to give their position on the recommendation in  September. If the employers reject the recommendation then they are considering seeking to scrap the industry agreements on pay and conditions, which include mandatory union membership.

If the employers accept the 7.5% pay cut recommendation, then it’s up to the unions to respond. There is a lot at stake. Wages and conditions are being driven down across the construction industry with many employers ignoring the Registered Employment Agreement’s. The construction unions need to take a stand. The electricians strike in 2009 temporarily halted the employers attack on pay and conditions.

A united stand by the unions that threatens to unleash a wave of industrial action by all trades is the only credible option if pay and conditions are to be protected.