Unite the Union says the construction industry is putting the desire to build new homes ahead of workers’ safety amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and has demanded the government extend coronavirus testing to construction workers.
Major construction workers’ union Unite has today issued a statement saying it is increasingly concerned that the safety of construction workers is being put at risk by the keenness of housebuilding firms to return to work.
In the statement, the union said it believed social distancing will be a major challenge on many house building sites because of what it called the “highly casual manner” in which such sites are organised, with many self-employed tradesmen frequently entering and leaving sites.
Unite’s action comes as a number of the UK’s biggest housebuilding firms, including Persimmon, Redrow, Taylor Wimpey and Vistry, have announced they are returning to sites.
The union called on the sector to uphold safety measures and keep the 250,000 workers in the industry, and their families, safe from the threat of COVID-19.
All of the housebuilders who have returned to site so far have stated that their working practices have been reorganised during the lockdown to ensure safe working while maintaining social distancing.
However, Unite claims that the official guidance on construction site working from the Construction Leadership Council has been weakened, putting workers in danger.
Unite national officer Jerry Swain said that housebuilders were making the decision to re-open construction sites based on “watered down and frankly dangerous guidance”, which is “putting the desire to build houses before the health of workers”.
Mr Swain went on to say:
Given the nature of house building, it will be highly challenging to ensure social distancing and strict cleaning regimes on these sites. Unite urges housebuilders to disregard the CLC guidance on social distancing but to work with us to ensure that there are no exceptions to the two-metre rule.
With so many construction sites now reopening during the coronavirus lockdown, Unite have also called on the government to include construction workers in the targeted round of COVID-19 testing of key workers.
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail has written to Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care, to urge him to extend testing to construction workers to help prevent the spread of the virus.
Cartmail said that including construction workers in the government’s testing regime is “one of a number of measures necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19”, particularly in light of newly relaxed social distancing guidance for building sites.
The letter states:
Many construction workers continued to work through the lockdown and furloughed workers are being phased back ahead of other sectors. The recently relaxed guidance from the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) on social distancing whilst at work is undermining efforts to get agreement on safe working practices.
Operating advice for building sites based on CLC guidance states that construction workers can work face to face within two metres of each other as long as it is for ‘15 minutes or less where possible’.
Unite believes with good practice social distancing can be maintained for most tasks and where this is not possible the task should not be undertaken. However, to date there is evidence of confusion and if the 15-minute relaxation persists it will heighten concerns about spreading Covid19 into communities and workers’ homes.
There are financial pressures bearing down on workers to go back to work as more than 50% per cent of all construction workers are self-employed. Unite lobbied and won financial support for self-employed construction workers but the long delay in accessing support is a real issue that many are grappling with.
Unite believes construction workers should be included within the sectors designated for Covid19 testing as one of a number of measures necessary to prevent the spread of Covid19.
Government needs to understand that construction workers have travelled to and from work amongst these other key workers and will continue to do so. For testing to be effective within the key worker group construction workers must be included.