WORKERS on building sites across the State shouldn’t have to make a choice about going to work amidst the uncertainty that’s been generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Unite trade union.
The union believes that social distancing as recommended by the Government and HSE cannot be maintained on sites, meaning sites should close in the interest of worker safety. According to Tom Fitzgerald, Unite’s Regional Officer for Construction, the Government should pay almost 75 per cent of builders’ wages (up to a cap equivalent of €40,000) over the coming months.
“It has become increasingly clear to our members, who work on sites throughout the country, that adequate social distancing cannot be maintained either on site or, in many cases, when travelling to and from sites,” he said,
“The result is that approximately 150,000 construction workers are not only themselves susceptible to the spread of Covid-19, but are also at risk of bringing the virus back home to their families and communities – further increasing the strain on our health services.”
Following an online meeting of Unite’s national construction branch on Monday night, “attended by senior reps with hundreds of years’ experience between them, heard numerous concrete examples of where social distancing cannot be maintained”.
Prior to the issuing of further Covid-19 guidelines outlined by the Government yesterday, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) implored building firms to comply with the new on-site health regulations.
According to Congress General Secretary Patricia King: “Essentially workers should adhere to social distancing guidelines, carry out regular hand washing and use gloves and masks if possible to help contain the spread of the virus in the workplace. The HSE has issued guidelines on the Coronavirus and we recommend that this guidance is adhered to by workers in the construction industry. Congress will continue to watch the situation closely.”
CIF Director General Tom Parlon echoed Ms King’s sentiments. “Social distancing and compliance with HSE guidance on Covid-19 is now critical to the continuation of the construction industry and for our nation,” he said. “We urge contractors and workers to work together to enforce social distancing regardless of any impacts on productivity or deadlines.”
He added: “The CIF is also asking companies to remind workers that social distancing is critical off-site and on the way to the site. Workers should not travel in groups and while visiting local businesses (shops etc) must maintain the one to two-metre distance guideline. Construction workers are to be commended for continuing to operate safely as they deliver essential projects that enable essential services including emergency health facilities, sewerage, electricity, power, data and water, all critical to society.”
Mr Fitzgerald said his union, fearing an escalation of the pandemic, was worried that “responsible employers may close sites and find themselves effectively undercut by irresponsible employers whose sites remain open, putting workers and the general public at risk
“We are therefore calling on the Government to immediately close all sites, and to ensure that all construction workers – including so-called bogus self-employed workers in sub-contracting chains – are included in a wage compensation scheme such as that proposed by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.”
Tom Fitzgerald added: “This virus does not distinguish between workers on different types of contracts, and neither should the Government’s response: all workers on a site must be presumed to be employed…and no worker should be forced to choose between health or hardship.”
A vox pop conducted at several Dublin building sites by Fergal Keane on RTE Radio One’s ‘Drivetime’ programme revealed a split in opinion between construction workers when it came to whether sites should remain open or not.
Building sites remain open following yesterday’s Government announcement.