Lives and times of building workers

Former steel fixer Ray Rising describes some experiences made by construction workers both in Britain and in continental Europe during the 1970s and 1980s.

I do not have a definitive answer to Fiona Harrington’s question regarding the history of British building workers’ experiences in Europe from the 1970s onward, which she posed in a recent comment piece. But perhaps this may shed a little light on the whole picture. It was about 1971 that the initial large influx of British and Irish building workers first landed in Holland and West Germany.

Not accidental was the fact that just before there had been a nationwide building strike in Britain led ostensibly by union activists (UCATT & TGWU) within the Communist Party (CP) against the “lump labour system”. Building companies wanted to casualise employment, doing away with unionised sites and the somewhat reasonable conditions thereon, mainly in the larger cities.

A number of arrests of pickets were made in the North Wales/Chester area and there was a “show” trial in 1972. At the court in Mold, Cheshire, a number of activists were arraigned in what was known as the “Shrewsbury Six” case. Charged with attacking and intimidating strike-breakers they were convicted by the state during the Ted Heath Tory government, with two principal leaders, Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson (later of the “Royle Family”), receiving the longest jail sentences.

From this period onward, the leadership of the CP ditched the fight against the “lump” and sought positions in the leadership of building unions whilst leaving a CP member, in the case of Warren, to languish in jail.

A serious decline in the building workers’ conditions began in earnest. Today most builders in Britain and Ireland are self-employed without insurance or holiday pay and are treated in a contemptuous manner by main and sub-contractors as well as temp agencies.

In West Germany, in the 1970s, there was a big surge in construction projects and this attracted workers from Britain and Ireland. Initially, the German contractors used Dutch agencies as intermediaries to speak to and direct British and Irish workers to sites all over West Germany.

They found that employing these men fulfilled their needs. Firstly there was a widely held view amongst the authorities that “too many” Turks and Slavs were making themselves indispensable to Germany and were establishing half-national rights that could make it difficult, politically, to terminate.

Secondly, because they paid relatively good wages, the Brits and Irish worked at a tempo and to a standard not seen since the enforced labour of the Nazi period which suited the construction firms. They were definitely not used as cheap labour from all I’ve learned. They also showed a ready willingness to repatriate themselves back to their islands whenever they had enough money.

I was in Germany for a year, from 1970-71, and gleaned this view from a number of the boys on sites and in the pubs, although at first they found it a little strange to work the metric drawings and language. From the 1970s through roughly the next 20 years it continued more or less the same.

But with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, things began to change. The skills of workers from the former East Germany, who had been poorly paid in the DDR, were brought in to change things, with both political and economic results.

Such is the lot of the travelling building worker. Hurry the day when they all can build homes, schools, hospitals and infrastructure together in a multitude of languages under terms of equally fair pay and conditions without being subjected to national ridicule! For a socialist and Republican United States of Europe.

6 February 2009

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