Building workers & coronavirus

by Pat Turnbull

On March 23 the Prime Minister announced a lockdown to hinder the spread of Covid 19. By then 6,650 had tested positive and 335 were known to have died of the disease. On 23 June he announced an easing of lockdown. The worldometer coronavirus up-date on 28 June recorded total cases in the UK as 311,151; new cases 901; total deaths 43,550 and new deaths 36. 


A factor which lead to the UK having one of the worst death rates in the world from the virus – 642 per million of the population at 28 June – was the fact that the lockdown was a sham. Hundreds of thousands of workers in activities not essential in a pandemic continued to have to go to work without adequate protection from catching the deadly illness. This was factored into the lockdown announcement from the start, with the repeated message on the television advising us all to work from home – unless we couldn’t. A major group of workers exempt from the lockdown were building workers. What followed exposed the many already existing problems for workers in the industry: insecure employment conditions, use of bogus self-employment, subcontracted work as a norm, opposition by construction firms to trade unions and victimisation of anyone raising safety concerns.

Building workers were, from the start, worried about the implications for their health of the Government’s failure to order sites to close. On 25 March the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald, in an article entitled, It’s appalling – construction workers blast sites for remaining open, reported: ‘One worker, who is based on a Morrison construction site in Ayrshire said: “We are all freaking out and nobody’s listening. Some jobs you can’t do by yourself on a building site. Boils down to money, that’s what its all about. They’re scared they’ll get stuck with the bill. They’re putting money before men.” He said he’s been given a choice between health and livelihood which is impossible to make. There was a lot of buck passing. The article continues: ‘A spokesman for East Ayrshire council said: “The Barony Campus [a super school] remains open at the current time: however, this is a matter for Morrison Construction and cannot be influenced by East Ayrshire Council. The advice issued by both Scottish and UK Governments regarding closure of construction sites is advisory. No guidance has been provided to clarify what is meant by essential.”’

The article quoted a subcontractor, who has been working on a new tax office building in Glasgow being developed by BAM construction company: ‘The man’s wife is a key worker caring for the vulnerable and elderly. The worker was told to stand down yesterday and was sent home but now he is unsure if he will qualify for the 80 per cent furlough salary or will have to sign up for Universal Credit. “We need them to close. I just know that.”’ BAM planned a pause for a review of working practices saying, ‘Where work can be delivered according to these guidelines, it is anticipated that sites will re-start from Monday, March 30.’

On 24 March Nicola Sturgeon told a press conference that construction workers on sites of non-essential buildings ‘should not be working…advice given by the Scottish government for Scotland’. Advice not instruction.

On 26 May Architects Journal carried an article entitled Young architects launch petition calling for all building sites to be shut down. The Architecture foundation’s Young Network was saying that construction workers could not maintain the two metre social distancing recommended by the government. Prime minister Boris Johnson had imposed what was described as a strict national lockdown but stopped short of ordering construction sites to close. In fact, the Architects Journal’s sister title, Construction News, had seen an e-mail that day from a senior prime ministerial adviser which explicitly said the Government was not closing construction sites nor was it encouraging them to do so.


Campaigning construction worker, Dave Smith, one of the organisers of the #shutthesites campaign reported: ‘immediately after Boris Johnson’s speech, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and 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”’. Smith added that the Minister, ‘even had the brass neck to end the tweet with the hashtag #StayHomeSaveLives.’ (Morning Star 25 March) Since then Jenrick has become more known for his role in the notorious Westferry Printworks affair where he looked favourably on a planning application by Richard Desmond who subsequently made a donation to the Tory Party.

Dave Smith gave his interpretation of events: ‘The cartel of major contractors that run the British construction sector are huge financial donors to the Tory Party and appear to have lobbied hard to keep the sites open. In addition the Government doesn’t want to have to pay the loss of income for about a million construction workers who are classified as self-employed.’

Architects Journal reported that some developers had closed sites, listing Multiplex, Taylor Wimpey, Barrett Homes, Galliard, Mace, Crossrail and LSG. L&Q closed its sites for three weeks saying: ‘Social distancing is extremely difficult to achieve. Added to this, in London, our construction workers are heavy users of the public transport network.’ But the journal added: ‘Contractors are refusing to shut sites until the Government force them to so they don’t fall foul of any contractual clauses.’


An article on the Reel News website (2 April) entitled Coronavirus: Workers demand construction sites are shut down reported: ‘Reel News has been inundated with messages from construction workers all over the UK, demanding their sites are shut down during the coronavirus crisis.’ It quoted the Government advice: ‘With the exception of some non-essential shops and venues we are not asking any other businesses to close – indeed it is important for business to carry on. However, you should encourage your employees to work from home unless it is impossible for them to do so. Sometimes it will not be possible…for instance if they operate machinery, work in construction or manufacturing, or are delivering frontline services.’ Reel News advised workers to ‘shut down sites…get furloughed on full pay (or at least the 80 per cent promised by the Government) and put pressure on the Government to tell these sites to shut down.’

Reports on the website showed building workers taking action of all kinds to get their sites shut down, and ensure they could still feed their families, and the resistance they faced from construction employers. Some examples:

  • ‘The MGT construction site building the biggest biomass power station in the world near Middlesbrough is close to being shut down completely.’ Given the outcry from ‘1,700 workers being forced to work in dangerous conditions where social distancing was impossible, a number of companies doing the work on the site backed down and furloughed their workers at the end of last week, sending them home on 80 per cent wages – but SPIE, Powertherm and Brand were still insisting on their workers turning up yesterday. Following negotiations with union reps over the weekend SPIE was forced to back down too. Powertherm, who work directly for the Spanish client Technicas Rodundas, were foolishly still trying to carry on – that may be because they are probably paid by the hour by Technicas Rodundas for labour, materials and equipment instead of having submitted a quote for the job. But all their laggers just sat in the welfare yesterday refusing to work, before going home. Brand are disgracefully still holding out and expecting their workforce to come in. We’re being told there are only around 300 workers out of the 1,700 still left on site. There are also problems with companies just paying their workers off instead of furloughing them on 80 per cent of their wages – something that won’t cost them a penny. One company that’s refusing to furlough is Balfour Beatty.’ 72 workers on fixed term contracts where there was still work to be done, could have been furloughed but instead were given a week’s notice and paid off. In the end the site was shut down and all the workers went home on full pay. This was within hours of GMB safety rep, Simon Duncan, posting photographs of workers congregating at the start of the shift and asking the question on social media: ‘Please tell me, Mr Johnson, how do we adhere to social distancing.’
  • A worker reported from Smulders yard in Wallsend: ‘Multiple people on the yard and offices already have symptoms and there have been confirmed cases already, and still they will not close.’ Normally there were up to 700 employees on site. All workers were being classed as key workers when they were clearly doing non-essential work. Reel News continued, ‘The majority of the workforce is from Portugal/Poland and they were promised a few weeks back that if they stayed when they had the chance to go home, they would 100 per cent be able to carry on working. Now it’s very difficult for them to walk off the job because they have nowhere to go. […] As if this wasn’t bad enough, on Sunday night Coosemans (the general manager) took the unbelievably stupid step of starting twenty new welders – brought up from London, and staying in caravans in the car park. Apart from the fact that no one should be travelling out of London (the epicentre of the virus) at the moment, it is highly likely that these workers have been flown in from abroad. They won’t have been tested at the airport – and they certainly won’t have been tested before coming on site.’
  • Workers on sites sent Reel News photographs of what was going on, including one from Hinckley Point at 6pm on March 25, showing clocking stations and queue for buses, with no social distancing at all, on a site with thousands of workers. The website added, ‘And it’s now emerged that the management were still taking on workers from abroad up to last week.’ Hinckley Point management were also allowing their staff to travel home all over the country for consecutive days off. Workers sent photos from Keadby power station project near Scunthorpe, run by Siemens and SSE, which showed workers queueing up to have their ID checked with a finger print machine. ‘So every single worker on the job is touching the same surface, one by one. Meanwhile SSE managers have left the site to work from home and left just one man on site!’
  • Affinity Living, Manchester, was a job building luxury flats, employing hundreds of workers. SISK, the main contractor, was actively fighting to keep the site open. ‘Some firms have pulled off but are unbelievably trying to allocate their workers to different Manchester sites. Thirty brave workers were trying to take a stand and refusing to move to another site on March 26, thereby risking spreading the virus even more, but then had the problem of needing to eat at some point – and they needed to be sent home to be paid.’

Local authorities are by far the biggest commissioners of construction projects in the country. Activities non-essential during a pandemic were kept operating. Hackney Labour Council, as developer and Morgan Sindall as builder, kept their Britannia leisure centre and school site open throughout the lockdown, despite being provided with evidence by nearby residents which showed social distancing was not being observed. The irony of having notices in the neighbouring park advising users to keep two metres distant was not lost on local people.


On 22 April Unite the Union published an item, Watered-down Covid 19 construction guidance is unsafe warns Unite and launches hotline for worried workers. It said, ‘The latest of the site operating procedures (version 3) published by the Construction Leadership Council is noticeably weaker than previous versions. It was issued to coincide with a return to work at a large number of sites this week, particularly in the London area.’ The union noted, ‘the fundamental requirement for workers to socially distance at work. The guidance now states that where workers are required to work within two metres of each other they should: “work side by side or facing away from each other rather than face to face. When this is not possible and workers have to work face to face within two metres of each other workers should keep this to fifteen minutes or less where possible…”. Unite national officer for construction, Jerry Swain, said: “…no site should be working unless it can do so safely and that means two metres social distancing must be maintained at all times…Construction workers should not be forced to use over-crowded public transport…please contact Unite via the hotline. Your identity will not be revealed to your employer.”’

On 15 May, Risks: Union Health and Safety News, the Trade Union Congress’s weekly newsletter, reported that the Office for National Statistics revealed workers in low skilled elementary occupations, at a rate of 21.4 deaths per 100,000, were almost four times as likely to die from the virus as professionals, at 5.6 per 1000,000. The occupations so described included building workers.

The chief of the Health and Safety Executive, Sarah Albon, reported on May 12 to Parliament’s Work and Pensions committee that between 9 March and 7 May the Executive had received 7,149 coronavirus related queries from people concerned about their safety at work. In only 321 cases did inspectors speak with employers and inspectors were yet to close any businesses as a result of the reported concerns.

As Mike Clancy, the General Secretary of Prospect, the union representing Health and Safety Executive inspectors, put it: ‘The Prime Minister has indicated that the Health and Safety Executive will be carrying out spot checks on workplaces to ensure safety. To enable the Health and Safety Executive to cope with this level of work he promised a £14 million funding boost, but this is just ten per cent of the real-terms funding cut the Health and Safety Executive has experienced over the past ten years and there are now fewer than 500 main grade inspectors in the UK.’

In an article in Yahoo Finance UK (13 May), entitled Coronavirus: Fears for construction workers’ safety as UK building sites reopen,  Tom Belger reported: ‘Boris Johnson singled out construction workers when he announced an easing of the lockdown this week, urging them to get back to work…figures [suggest] almost three quarters of building sites in England and Wales were already open last week. Firms are keen to keep projects on track, and many workers reliant on their incomes…Taylor Wimpey began reopening its sites last week…The Unite union has warned breaching the two metre rule at all is unacceptable however. Most importantly, there are big questions about what workers should do if the rules are not followed. Issues can be reported to the Health and Safety Executive, but it has suspended targeted inspection activity of sites during the pandemic. Workers may also fear reprisals in a sector with a history of blacklisting.’ Indeed, on 25 February 2019 the BBC reported: ‘The union Unite is taking a case to the High Court after names were found in a file compiled by the Consulting Association, which was raided in 2009. More than 3,000 people were on the blacklist, often for being a union member or for raising safety issues. The blacklist has been used by dozens of construction firms to vet those applying for work on building sites.’ The raid had been carried out by the Information Commissioners office.

Yahoo Finance UK quoted Geoff Wilkinson of building standards firm, W construction Consultants, ‘Some contractors also “put pressure on sub-contractors to continue to work”, particularly when they may face penalties for delays. Many site workers are self-employed, with not all eligible for Government support schemes and payments only from late May for those that are. “That’s why you’ve seen a lot remaining in the workplace.” However safe sites can be made, commuting is another major concern…many colleagues lived in Kent and typically travelled at peak hours to London by train…Wilkinson expects an eventual surge in legal claims against firms on behalf of both laid-off workers and those left seriously ill or even killed by Covid 19.’

Sadly any legal claims will come too late to save the lives of the building workers, their family members and members of the public already sacrificed on the altar of business as usual.

Britannia site Hackney

The cartel of major contractors that run the British construction sector are huge financial donors to the Tory Party and appear to have lobbied hard to keep the sites open.