Behind the Scunthorpe Scaffs Strike

Scaffolders at British Steel's Scunthorpe site have spent years fighting for their pay to be brought in line with nationally agreed rates. Now, even after more than 100 days on strike, they're determined to win.

Scaffolders on strike at British Steel in Scunthorpe. (Unite)

For more than a century, countless families in Scunthorpe have dedicated their working lives to Scunthorpe Steel Works.

Now, scaffolders on the site, now owned by British Steel, have been forced into a years-long pay dispute as bosses deny them the national standard rate in line with the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry, or NAECI, which sets out the basic terms and conditions for many construction workers in the country. Workers contracted by Actavo on the site are currently paid between 10% and 15% lower than the national standard, depending on their level of seniority.

Kyle Jones, a planner working for Actavo, is one of those workers. He tells Tribune: ‘We haven’t received a pay rise since 2018 and, prior to that, annual pay negotiations were long and drawn out. Having our pay brought in-line with the NAECI agreement pay means we will no longer have to battle for pay rises in the future.’

Scaffolders at the site have been fighting for fair pay since January 2019, and their battle is far from over. They initially balloted for strike action under contractor Brand Infrastructure Services in March 2020, and were mid-dispute when Actavo took over in March 2021. When Actavo declined to pay the NAECI rate, 62 Unite the union members, who maintain 500 scaffolding structures at the site, re-balloted for industrial action. The strike initially ran for 12 weeks from 4 October 2021 all the way through to Christmas Eve.

‘Christmas Eve was the last day of the strike, and then you had to go home and pretend everything was all right for Christmas Day,’ says David Birchall, a scaffolding supervisor and Unite senior steward who has worked on the steelworks for 15 years. ‘For the majority of us, it was the worst Christmas ever.’

On 22 December, to mark the 12th week of the strike, Actavo workers delivered a petition with 14,000 signatures calling on CEO Brian Kelly to ‘pay the rate’. Actavo agreed to pay its workers a reasonable rate—but when David and his colleagues arrived back to work in January, they were locked out of the site. It turned out that British Steel had refused to give Actavo any work and, as a result, its staff were put on a three-week layoff.

‘[Actavo] told us they couldn’t pay the higher rate anymore because if they did, they’d be paying us to sit at home,’ David tells Tribune. Some workers were entitled to full pay; others only got £30 a day from Actavo, as per their contracts. ‘It was very bad,’ he says. ‘We didn’t know what was going on, we didn’t know whether we were going to lose our jobs. Some of the lads were missing mortgage payments—it was only thanks to the strike fund that we were able to hand out money to the lads who were struggling and buy [them] food vouchers and pay for fuel to get them to the gates to strike.’

David says that British Steel, which was acquired by Chinese steelmaker Jingye in March 2020 a year after the company was placed under the control of the UK Insolvency Service, is unwilling to negotiate with the union. ‘They just don’t have any intention of doing anything with us,’ he says. ‘They don’t want people fighting back.’

David explains it’s been heard that British Steel made a statement to Actavo saying that they do not want a Unite the union win on the steelworks, ‘because they have 690 Unite members who are currently crossing the picket line that have said they will do what we’ve done if we win.’

Consequently, qualified tradesmen and women on the British Steel site are looking elsewhere for work, David adds, because other sites, such as on the South Humber Bank Power Station, are paying around 15% to 20% more. ‘The site needs to pay the nationally agreed rate or they will forfeit the skilled tradesmen they employ,’ says Kyle.

Rumours are circulating that to remedy this, rather than paying its workers the fair rate, British Steel has acquired 250 visas for tradesmen from China to work on the Scunthorpe site for less than they deserve. ‘It does nothing for the local area,’ says David. ‘They’re not supporting Scunthorpe like they say they are, because if 2,000 people might potentially lose their jobs due to low pay, it’s going to absolutely cripple the area.’

The strikers have balloted for another 12 weeks of action, but the impact of this on each individual worker is not lost. ‘I’m not exaggerating when I say I don’t think I’ve ever been depressed in my life—and I’m depressed,’ says David. ‘Some of the other lads have got serious depression because of what’s happening.’

He adds: ‘Families are struggling and suffering, it’s been appalling. You don’t know whether you’ve got a job, you don’t know whether you can afford to pay your rent next month.’

Due to such hardships, numbers have started to dwindle, but the 49 Actavo workers left on the picket line are determined to get the pay rise to which they’re entitled. ‘Sometimes you wonder if you’ve made the right decision, but I believe we have—and I think the 49 lads that are still left over believe that they made the right decision,’ says David. ‘Because why should bosses get away with it? Why should multi-billionaire companies get away with it?’

Joe Rollin, of Unite’s Organising and Leverage Department, said: ‘Unite is determined to back the Actavo strikers all the way. These brave members have stood up to protect the national agreement and we can’t allow companies to undercut and start a race to the bottom.’

Both David and Kyle, perhaps rightly, are worried about their children’s futures. Having followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Kyle now ‘hopes [his] children pursue a different career path than that of a scaffolder.’

But, he says, ‘should any of them choose to follow in the family footsteps, then I hope they will be as proud as I am in my contribution to the fight for fair pay within the industry.’

David, Kyle, and the rest of those striking are determined to keep going. ‘This fight could last months, maybe years,’ says David. ‘But we’re going to keep going. We’re not giving up on this.’

A spokesperson for Actavo said:

‘While Unite is stating that the current situation is ‘breaking’ the NAECI, the fact is NAECI does not apply. We understand that Unite agreed the current rates on a localised collective bargaining basis. The hourly rate of circa £15 is, we believe, broadly on a par with the national average for scaffolding works in the steel-making sector.

Actavo was informed before Christmas that there was no requirement for scaffolding for the first two weeks in January 2022. Despite having no work, Actavo paid all of our employees full pay for the first week in January as a goodwill gesture. Unfortunately, Actavo had no option but to invoke the layoff clauses in the employees’ contract of employment for week commencing 10 and 17 January. Only half of employees had the layoff clause in their contract, the remaining half continued to receive full pay.’

British Steel were contacted for comment but did not respond.