The following piece is an overview of one Rebel’s experience over the past decade in the electrical industry with an emphasis on the negative effects the States policies of “austerity” has had on the conditions of workers in this field, and in society as a whole. Too many Del Boy’s, not enough Rodneys it seems.
Lately as the cracks that have emerged in this government’s façade grow larger there have been ever more desperate cries from the Dickensian coalition’s defenders about how austerity has been working. The only truth in any of these claims is that it has been for those who took a hand in imposing it on the nation. The neo-liberal dream of the dismantling and sale of a nation has been realised in many ways these last few years. The fascist merger of corporation and state has been a hard-line agenda of politicians who wish to use political power for financial gain. It has worked for individuals who rather than work to serve those they were elected to, worked to remove the safe guards that were created to benefit all of society. Our most vulnerable and marginalised groups have been hardest hit by a regime that focuses on the individual and benefits the few. The programmes implemented by our current government have already cut the societal fabric to tatters .The only trickle down that has been evident is that of the ethos of self-service that those in the upper classes have steadfastly adhered too as the rest of us weathered the storm of recession.
The smug claims of job creation with poorly collected and presented statistics we receive from government ignore the dark figures, such as how many people are on a draconian jobs bridge scheme offering no future prospects. How many of the nations skilled or qualified workers have emigrated recently making the numbers on the live register decline a lot more than any of the programs the current government has implemented. Other facts that are omitted in the rhetoric include truths such as the increase of exploitation of workers on a national level in a variety of sectors. Lately the Dunnes workers made the nation aware of the, unfavourable to say the least, conditions they have been subject to. Though the specifics vary from sector to sector the common thread is that many people in employment today are receiving a lot less for working now than they would have in the same positions a decade ago or more ago. This recession has carried with it a regression in working conditions.
In the construction sector the electrical trade in particular I can say that deregulation is rife, a culture of exploitation is endemic and while employers may be coining it in a large number of workers are living on a week to week basis by and large with no safety net. A pair of snickers work pants is not attributed the same social status it had been in our not too distant past. When I began serving my time a decade ago I spent three years earning good money for a person of my age, There was no such thing as a person for working for less than the rate, travel money, accommodation, time and a half and double time were commonplace throughout the trade. People hired for long term periods with entitlements such as sick days not being uncommon and holiday pay a certainty.
Sub-contracting in placement of direct hiring is one trend that has emerged placing many workers in positions which have been devalued. Working for a reduced rate or not working at all is the predicament many face. I have time and again witnessed employers make apprentices and qualified tradesmen alike live in a state of perpetual unknowing, without certainty that they will be employed in a few weeks ,thus individuals are susceptible to accepting deceased wages. Fás or as its now know ‘The education and training board’ following the exposure of mass misappropriation of funds at an organisational level in recent years offers no support what so ever to apprentices in this circumstance. A call to them is at best the equivalent of ringing your boss and handing your notice.
If the union are called to a workplace it is to act for the most part like the mafia in America ensuring favourable pay and access to work to selected groups. One instance involving the union recently consisted of union intervention on a site where electricians had agreed to work for less than the qualified rate, a lot of these individuals have experienced years of difficulty securing work so at this stage to many work is work and most are not aware that the bargaining chips should be stacked in their favour.
The union come on site, proclaim that this is not acceptable, there is a shortage of electrical workers at this present time not an abundance (another way emigration has led to perceived job creation) It is enforced that these positions will be filled by workers receiving the industry standard of pay. This sounds great until it is revealed that the jobs will not be kept by those who had begun the works. All the original workers are now replaced by union stalwarts who have just finished with years of secure work and favourable conditions in Intel.
Since I returned to electrical industry I have worked for 5 different companies (In some part a side effect of demanding what I am entitled to and had no problem in receiving 10 years ago) and have not once received a payslip nor have the majority of those who I was working in conjunction with. It should be that a person is entitled to twenty one days paid leave for each working year as a minimum. With employers hiring on a project to project basis not only are they cutting on paying as much tax and insurance they also avoid paying holiday pay to employees.
One employer I worked for sacked the whole company x-mas week to avoid paying holiday pay to people who were already working for less than the standard rate.
The devaluing in terms of pay has come with a devaluing of the level of respect for workers and good workman ship. Another phenomenon to emerge with sub-contracting culture is that of hiring unqualified, unskilled workers. General operatives as they are sometimes called are individuals with no relevant training that are prepared to work in any case. Working myself I was assigned a companion to complete an installation. When I asked him what level of training he had attained he informed me he had previously been a second year plumber. A large majority of the other electrical workers on site were subcontractors, with a few working directly for the company that was being paid to complete works. Of these subcontractors many were not qualified electricians yet they had enough experience and good old Irish chance your arm to get by. Most importantly they were willing to work for less. I hold no man at fault for taking a job but they should not be able to take what should be a valued respected position from a qualified person for accepting a lesser deal.
At the moment a lot of people are left in a situation which offers no recourse if the wages stop. A choice of continuing to work despite the fact you may be doing so at a loss to yourself or put down the tools and guarantee the loss of what’s owed to you as well as your job is one nobody should face but one many have presenting itself on a regular basis in the construction industry. At the time when the industry collapsed one could not make allowances but at least allow reasonable doubt for such things. We are supposed to be in the trawls of a new economic boom yet the dialogue on site sounds like that of seven years ago ‘What’s this crowd like for wages’ the most commonly asked question one will hear on the colourful journey through the redevelopment of Dublin.
Ask most electricians they will tell you they have no faith in the union or the government. Some will point out that the union did nothing when the rate of pay for qualified workers was dropped a few years ago, did nothing when fees were introduced for modules and exams in recent times and they can see that they are doing nothing for them now. I have yet to talk to a man on site who has anything to say about the government that doesn’t include the term ‘shower of . . .’ and the general consensus is that the government ignores their interests and cater for the better off, the rest of us are better off out of it. They may not be able to verbalise the sense of gentrification academically but they know what it feels like. It is hard to convince individuals to act together for their better interest with bad support systems setting the example. We are left with an every man for himself collective consciousness that should not be.
The banter of the canteen has been hushed by the smart phone and the cultural/language barriers between the Irish and the most exploited workers of all foreign nationals. As we continue on with a drawn out class war it is evident that austerity is not working for the worker. Couple the disappearance of the pay related norms of a decade ago with an increased cost of living and less of a societal safety net and support system one would imagine that it would be conceivable that one could gather a resistance to the mistreatment. People seem to believe they have to take what they can get, that its alright for a few to make out like bandits while the rest of us toil satisfied with our lot, sure aren’t we lucky to be getting it. This is what has trickled down from the highest institutional agents of socialisation and no more.
Emigration is still considered the best option for those who are capable for those in the electrical and other areas of the construction sector, If somebody is not planning on heading for far off shores themselves they will be telling you that if they were you they would be gone like a shot. And it’s hard to argue against that fact at times.
Now let’s take a look at what’s being built. Admittedly there has been government spending but how have those euros been spent. A disgustingly long overdue child’s detention facility removing vulnerable youths from the archaic institutions that have been used to date. I give no props for doing something that should have been done twenty years ago if at all, treatment not isolation and punishment is what should be the focus of any effort to support what are for the most part vulnerable young individuals. Studies show this to be a far more effective method of preventing deviant behaviour yet government spending to areas like substance misuses and the community development sector has been all but cleaved to the bone these last few years. The main contractor on this state funded job a Dutch multinational so that’s your tax profiting those far afield.
A state purchase of a private hospital newly refurbished in areas but in others not, the alleged plan is to gut the entire building in a year or so and make it as it should be, paying for the same job twice in a lot of the refurbished areas. Concern more for opening the doors than what is behind them means they will open to a building in a condition that fails to meet standards expected by H.I.Q.A (Health Information Quality Authority). As a result this facility will be run by private firms not the h.s.e, the patients will be elderly h.s.e patients that are not fit for release but not requiring a large level of medical care. The building was formerly a maternity hospital I would like to know who deduced it would suit the needs of elderly patients. The whole project amounts to building an overflow so the ministers can claim to be getting more people off trollies. No matter what comes next it will be private entities making money off state funds when it opens in the next month.
My final tale of government spending is one told to me and one I believe to be true. A contractor is hired to refurbish offices to be used by Irish Water; he arrives at the Waterford location with the drawings and spec. He walks through the building to find 95% percent of what is required is already in place. He rings the builder in the thoughts that he is out of the job he expected. The builder tells him that he discovered the same thing on arrival, but not to worry Irish Water had not surveyed the building before requesting works so they would be getting paid as if they done the thing from scratch.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist