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Coronavirus Exposes Construction’s Bogus Self-Employment

More than a million workers in the construction industry are bogusly classified as self-employed. If the government wants them to stay home, it has to extend wage protections to cover them.

When the coronavirus crisis first reared its head, Britain’s government chose to downplay and minimise the scale of the threat. This weekend’s Sunday Times reporting made their unstated motive apparent: “protect the economy.” The flows of capital were not, under any circumstances, be obstructed.

Needless to say, it rapidly became clear the government’s strategy was built on sand. But even as it has in recent days has begun a panicked scramble towards the emergency measures like wage protection, there are still vast holes in their response to this crisis in both economic and public health terms.

Consider the construction industry. While a section of non-essential workers were self-isolating or working from home, hundreds of thousands of construction workers were reporting to work on sites across the country this morning. As an electrician and trade unionist, I sought out images from construction sites across the country and was able to raise some awareness.

Those construction workers, the vast of whom are registered as ‘self-employed’ even though they are workers in everything but name, were compelled by real worries about how they would put food on the tables of their families and pay their bills. They packed onto reduced service trains and buses this morning in close proximity with key workers also on their way to maintain our critical services like the NHS and the food supply chain.

Last week the government announced that they will be underwriting 80% of workers paid through PAYE, a welcome concession won thanks to pressure from the Labour leadership and the trade union movement. But so far they have neglected to secure the wages of nearly five million self-employed workers in the UK – one million of whom are in the construction sector.

Construction is one of the most precariously employed sectors in the UK, where workers have to dodge the minefield of bogus self-employment and umbrella scams through employment agencies and sub-contractors just to get their weekly wage. The absence of direct employment allows employers to ensure trade union activity is kept to a minimum so that workers cannot organise to improve their terms and conditions collectively.

With this level of insecurity and atomisation, the present circumstances allows for a huge imbalance of power between the employer and worker where raising concerns about health and safety can lead to being sacked on the spot and blacklisted, a status that prevents a great number of people from returning to work in the sector.

Today, many construction workers who choose to raise concerns over the coronavirus, or who refuse to attend their contracted jobs today, will suffer that same indignity and loss of livelihood.

Only this morning an electrician working on a MACE-managed project in London was told to pack up his tools for sending a tweet about the lack of social distancing and coronavirus preparation on site. With employment law stacked against the bogus self-employed, all you need to do is raise a concern and you could lose your income.

As well as being one of the most insecure industries, construction is also one of the most dangerous with fatalities and life-changing injuries a near weekly occurrence. There’s slim chance of this changing while contractors use the rule of fear to run their projects.

The perfect conditions for coronavirus to spread is to be in close proximity with others. With sometimes hundreds of workers coming together from a wide area, the risk of catching the virus and taking it back out with you to your family home, house share and wider communities, is massive.

On site you work together as a team, you help people lift and pass materials, share small service lifts to the top of office blocks, and use germ-friendly hand scanners to clock in and out. All this with frequently inadequate and not fit for purpose canteen and washing facilities. Too often the mantra within the construction industry is wealth before health, and we are seeing that now with the reaction to this outbreak.

Staying at home isn’t an option for many registered as self-employed. With minimal support put forward by the government so far, many have no option but take the risk. Just like everyone else, bills, rent and food all need to be paid for. As long as there isn’t support from the government for those registered as self-employed, the self-employed will be forced continue to go to work.

But the vast majority of those classes as self-employed in construction are, for all intents and purposes, workers. They are not freelancers working on their own terms, they are employed but denied proper employment protections by a system of loopholes. The government must learn from the coronavirus crisis and what has occurred today – and use this lesson to regularise the industry.

Unite the union has made this call on the government today, urging them to deal with the long-term problem by establishing a commission to ensure proper employment protections. It’s clear that any sensible approach would pursue an end to the culture of bogus self-employment altogether.

But in the short-term, and at minimum, the government need to do to three things today to stop the spread and to save the health of construction workers across the country.

  • Expand the wage support scheme to include the one million workers paid through the Construction Industry Scheme (CIS) and 300,000 engaged through umbrella companies
  • Order the closure of all non-essential sites across the UK
  • Implement greater protection measures on critical projects to safeguard the workforce

Unite the union, along with Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long Bailey, have been leading the charge in demanding that measures are introduced to help all of Britain’s self-employed workers. Chancellor Rishi Sunak would do well to heed their wisdom once again.

But the construction industry situation is even more urgent. Even with inadequate preparation, main contractors are keeping sites open and sub-contractors are still attending, and demanding that the workforce be on the job for as long as possible to avoid contractual charges and penalties being levied. This will not change until the government acts.