Contractors are using the tough financial climate as an excuse to short-change their workers, according to the head of construction’s biggest union.
Ucatt general secretary Steve Murphy - who was elected last month by 5,475 of the 48,146 eligible members - says he wants to work with good employers to create a level playing field, but he isn’t afraid of taking the fight to those he thinks deserve it.
Speaking to Construction News in his first interview since taking office, Mr Murphy said: “I think some employers will use the economic downturn as an excuse.
“We have seen a raft of employers over the past couple of years who have tried to lay people off, telling them that they are not going to get paid, that they are going on to short-time working and the rest of it.
“There is a raft of employers doing that kind of thing and even some big contractors have used it as an excuse, but there are still
the profits being made out there.”
But before he takes on contractors, Mr Murphy must address issues in his own organisation.
Ucatt has been beset by high-profile problems in recent months, from an overturned election result to disciplinary hearings and the barring of former general secretary Alan Ritchie from standing for re-election.
Mr Murphy denies the union has been damaged by spats, suggesting the “ordinary member won’t have noticed the difference”.
He points to last year’s 1.5 per cent pay rise for the 500,000 workers under the Construction Industry Joint Council and record industrial action against public sector pension plans as signs of a strong union movement.
And he places his faith in “a business plan to reinvigorate the union”, which will focus on upping the role of the regional secretaries.
“We have started unifying the union already,” he said. “I have had meetings with regional secretaries individually this week and we will unify this union, there is no question about that.”
One of Mr Murphy’s first acts as leader was to write to the chief executives of the top 30 contractors reassuring them that they have “nothing to fear” if they treat workers fairly.
He places passing good practice down the supply chain among his biggest priorities.
Others include improving the Construction Skills Certification Scheme; developing “proper” site-based apprentices; ensuring a smooth transition to auto-enrolment of pensions for construction workers; seeking strong working agreements on major projects; and ensuring good standards of health and safety.
He says he is “appalled” by the prime minister’s recent attack on health and safety and vows to fight anything that puts workers at risk.
He said: “How can you cut red tape for an industry that kills and maims as many as we do? This is not fluffy health and safety; this is real health and safety that affects peoples’ lives and families in an industry that cripples people.”
Originally a bricklayer, Mr Murphy has spent 14 years in Ucatt, most recently heading up the Yorkshire region. His achievements include establishing the Kier Convenor Forum and helping mount legal action to defend workers hit by the collapse of Connaught in Hull.
Discussing the need for a powerful union in the 21st century, he points to a 2008 incident on a Skanska project in Mansfield.
A firm employed by one of its subcontractors was found to be paying Lithuanian workers as little as £8.80 per week after “deductions” for rent and electricity.
Mr Murphy helped ensure the culprits were prosecuted, but he maintains it was an “indictment” of the state of workers’ rights in the industry.
He takes his inspiration from former general secretary George Brumwell, who took him on as a development officer and was credited with saving the union in the 1990s from political infighting.
This inspiration could prove helpful with less than half of Ucatt’s claimed 110,559 members paid up and eligible to vote and barred election candidate Mick Dooley challenging the union’s decision with the watchdog.