Published On: Fri, May 22nd, 2020

“From chaos to pandemonium”: The living nightmare of construction sites

The Tories have declared their “active encouragement” for workers to return to work, in order to boost the profits of the big companies.

This includes those in construction. An angry mood is therefore growing on building sites around the country. Once again, it is profits first, safety last.

Many are rightly calling for the unions to take a lead in shutting down all non-essential sites, in order to protect workers and the wider community.

With this in mind Roy Bentham – long-time trade union campaigner against the construction blacklist and for workers’ rights on building sites – provides his perspective on the tensions in the industry.

A couple of months on since lockdown started, my own sector – the building industry – has by and large just carried on as before, with all the disarray that COVID-19 has brought.

With VE Day been and gone, some may think that a Churchillian spirit is what the country needs. But on closer inspection it’s all very much a charade. What we see, in fact, is that Number 10 are riding roughshod over all medical expertise.

It’s an approach that has veered from chaos to pandemonium, on a grand scale, as this horrendous nightmare continues to unfold.

A weak investigative media have been absent without leave. This has only helped the establishment push their message of everything being under control.


But how did we get here? With our mortality rates now exceeding those of any other European country, we are top of a table many never thought possible. We now have a government hellbent on lying to cover their tracks, giving wholly disingenuous figures for testing, fatality numbers, amounts of PPE available – and with many of those batches not fit for purpose either.

What can’t be a coincidence is that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson now preside over some of the highest death rates from coronavirus in the world. And yet these ‘leaders’ take little or no responsibility for their government’s actions (or, more truthfully, inactions). One day, these will read like a crimesheet from the Nuremberg Trials.

Within my own sector, workers have done fantastically well in keeping those essential projects going – in hospitals, in care homes, and on the upkeep of roads and motorways for our doctors, nurses, care workers, and the many essential supermarket workers to use.

However, the latest leaks in the big business media, state that we will have to take pay cuts of up to 30% when the ‘new normal’ is upon us. This shows that we have been led down the garden path from the off.

During the last recession, workers were most unfairly forced to take the hit. The establishment, meanwhile, got off scot free. Now history looks to repeat itself.

Need for leadership

On Workers’ Memorial Day, we saw some fantastic direct action in placing body bags outside the offices of the MACE Group, construction big hitters, for their flouting of social distancing on their projects. Their sites had all been operating, but pressure and action like this has forced some of theirs – and others – to close until further notice.

If I have been slightly disappointed anywhere, however, it is with the less than forceful nature of the union higher-ups when it comes to pushing for all non-essential sites to be closed from the off.

A number of factors may be playing a role here. Being too close to those within the establishment – with promises of sweetheart deals, as we know happened within the Consulting Association blacklist scandal – may have something to do with it. Also, a lot of government contracts are in the pipeline; not least HS2, which has now been given the green light.

Once-in-a-blue-moon briefings, or doing the odd article that only ends up in the Morning Star, isn’t really going to capture the nation’s hearts and minds is it?

Maybe it’s being holed up in furlough-land, and not physically being able to organise, that has us hamstrung as well. No amount of Zoom meetings from our bedrooms or back gardens can redress that.

Sending most into work whilst our union officers are at home isn’t really leading from the front. But this – leadership – is what most workers are looking for now. There is a sense of it being every man for himself out there.


Construction workers2We can all knock a risk assessment back and forth till it’s blue in the face. But for those unfortunate enough to fatally contract the virus, that is what you will be: blue in the face on a mortuary table.

No glossy method statement or government guidance notes can shine the proverbial, if you catch my drift. Building sites and welfare facilities can resemble a jungle at the best of times.

Social distancing paraphernalia will be there primarily to protect the employers from RIDDOR [reporting of injuries, diseases, and dangerous occurrences regulations] claims once the ambulance chasers predictably come out in force.

The very vague Site Operating Procedures from the capitalist entity that is the Construction Leadership Council will be stripped bare in many a courtroom for those who fall ill from coronavirus.

So what is the view amongst most of those in the trenches? The rank and file feel there’s an overriding sense that we are fast becoming part of the problem. Lockdown should mean lockdown. Non-essential should mean – yes you got it – non-essential.

The admirable #ShutTheSites campaign – which the great working-class champion John McDonnell, along with many others on the left of the movement, have supported – could have been the spark of something much wider from the organised union movement. This is what we need. Unions must pick a side: our side.

With all that in mind, trying to be friendly with this wholly discredited government may see history deflecting a lot of that brown stuff our way in time. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

Socialist Appeal



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