The Building Trade In 1972

Working conditions on building sites were second only to coal mines for fatalities and serious injuries. Basic facilities which people took for granted in factories, offices and shops were scarce or non-existent: toilets, washbasins, canteens, and lockers.

“McAlpines looked after their horses better than the workers on their sites”

Alan Abrahams, UCATT official, 1973

STATISTICS Number of fatal accidents in construction reported to Health & Safety Commission (HSC), enforcement and other authorities 1971-75:

1971 201
1972 190
1973 231
1974 166
1975 182

Number of spells of certified incapacity in statistical year resulting from fresh industrial accidents in construction 1970/1 to 1974/5:

1970/1 76,000
1971/2 72,000
1972/3 76,000
1973/4 76,000
1974/5 65,000

Source: Department of Health and Social Security

Building sites were temporary. When the job was finished workers moved to another site and trade union organisation had to start all over again. Good trade union activists were quickly blacklisted and found that they could not find work. The employers funded a secret organisation, the Economic League, to maintain the blacklist. One of the main contributors to the fund were the building trade employers. Although the Economic League was exposed and disbanded the Consulting Association replaced it and the practice of blacklisting continues to this day.

London Bridge site Marples Ridgway

“In pursuit of profit on its London Bridge site Marples Ridgway flouted the construction safety regulations and killed this man, and two others in 1972. They were fined £300.” © Socialist Worker 2011

Another feature of the construction industry that undermined the ability of trade unions to organise workers was the government’s policy for building workers to pay income tax. Employers were given tax concessions to allow them to promote “the lump”. This was the practice where workers were no longer seen as employees, whose income tax and National Insurance was deducted from wages and paid to the Inland Revenue. Instead a worker would be regarded as “self-employed” and paid a lump sum of money for the work that they did each day or week, hence “working on the lump”. The individual worker would be responsible for paying tax and NI, not the employer.

In 1966 the government had introduced Selective Employment Tax (SET). This allowed employers to offload thousands of directly employed workers and then re-employ them in a “self-employed” capacity. From 1971 “self-employed” building workers had to apply to the government for a tax exemption certificate, the “714”. This allowed the employer to shift to the worker the responsibility for paying income tax to the Inland Revenue. A 714 worker was allowed generous allowances for travel, clothes, lodgings, tools etc that were signed off by the employer. The worker then paid income tax on a much smaller amount than a directly employed worker.

In reality many workers were trading off working conditions and health and safety on sites for higher pay. Many employers refused to take on direct labour, as they knew that many of them would be trade unionists who would use collective bargaining to improve pay and conditions.

The national minimum rate for the building trade in those days was just £20 for a skilled worker and £17 for labourers, for a 40-hour week.

This was the backdrop to the national strike in 1972.

Ricky, Des & Terry on the march - 1973

Pickets leading the march before their committal hearing, 15 March 1973. © Morning Star 2011