Forced to choose between health and hunger
Covid-19: construction workers need support now as sites pose serious public health risk
When prime minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday night (March 23) stricter measures that have forced large swathes of the economy to shut down amid a UK-wide lockdown, the government said construction sites were still permitted to be open as long as workers practice social distancing.
But the policy of social distancing has collapsed on many construction sites with workers displaying pictures of overcrowded buses, queues to enter sites, packed canteens and workers working in close proximity. There are also major public health concerns about large number of construction workers travelling on the tube in London.
But with no wage support coming from the government for construction workers, a majority of whom are considered self-employed, they have been forced to continue working despite the serious health risks amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking on the BBC on Tuesday (March 24) Unite national officer for construction Jerry Swain said “it’s almost impossible to have social distancing among workers”.
“There’s always pinch points of entry where you will not maintain distance between people as the government requires,” he explained.
“You’re putting construction workers in a position where they’re forced to choose between health, hardship and hunger. That is not a position that is acceptable.”
Swain said he had spoken with a project director from a major project in London, who was “at a loss of what to do”.
“He quite openly pointed out that it’s very difficult if not impossible to maintain social distancing. But he said if I close the site these people will have no income. That’s not a choice the government should put on the construction industry.”
‘Angry and unprotected’
Construction workers have widely reported feeling the pressure to work while putting themselves, their families and their wider communities at risk.
“Everyone on site at the minute feels angry and unprotected,” a crane operator in London told the PA news agency.
The anonymous worker said that if he decided not to go into work he “wouldn’t get paid or even could lose my job”.
“(It’s) scary really – I’ve got a family and kids at home,” he said. “I’m in London around all these people (who are) bringing it all back into an isolated home.”
Electrician Dan Dobson told the PA that the increasingly dire situation with construction workers being forced to risk their lives and the lives of others will not change without government support.
“They have no incentive to stay at home, they have bills to pay,” he said. “None of them want to go to work, everyone is worried about taking it (coronavirus) home to their families. But they still have bills to pay, they still have rent to pay, they still have to buy food.
“The Government cannot issue the order to close until it offers support to the one million-plus construction workers – it has to go hand in hand.”
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Swain echoed this argument. He told the BBC that the wage assistance package offered to employees, where the government has pledged to cover 80 per cent of wages for those forced to stop work, can easily be extended to construction workers, more than half of whom are paid through the Construction Industry Scheme (CIS) and are largely classified as self-employed.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has come under renewed pressure to act and support construction and other self-employed workers. An announcement was expected on Tuesday (March 24) but with nothing yet forthcoming, the self-employed, many of whom have now been forced to sign on to Universal Credit, have said they cannot wait any longer.
On Tuesday, Sunak suggested that help would be on the way soon but noted that a system for supporting the self-employed would be “incredibly complicated to design”.
But Unite has highlighted that since construction workers paid through the CIS are taxed at source, they can be easily identified by HMRC. In effect, a wage assistance programme for these CIS workers can be quickly drawn up by government. Regardless of employment status, Unite has urged the government to act now to protect all self-employed workers.
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said there was no time to waste as construction sites still open continue to pose a public health risk.
“There is an immediate public health emergency on construction sites, due to a lack of social distancing,” she said.
“Construction workers are currently facing a stark choice arising from negligence. That means they risk their health, or face the prospect of job loss, hardship and hunger.
“By construction workers being compelled to work unprotected and travel, the lack of government safety coordination, is risking their health, the health of their families and the health of the general public.”
Cartmail added, “The government must announce they will take urgent action to ensure that construction sites will be safe and if not that displaced workers will have their jobs and income protected irrespective of being directly employed or self-employed.
“Contractors also have a moral duty to ensure that all the workers on their sites are safe and financially protected.
“No worker should have to make a life or death decision arising from government or contractor negligence.”