Photos by Conal Thomas

It is still early days for the latest round of construction in the Docklands.

But as more sites are lined up for office buildings and apartment complexes, some are wondering how best to make sure that local residents benefit from the work all the planned building is expected to bring.

At the moment, it is an an objective of the Docklands Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) to support access to jobs for locals in the area. But it isn’t a legal requirement for companies to hire locals to work on construction sites there.

Independent Councillor Christy Burke, who has recently been appointed to the Docklands forum, wants this changed.

“At the next meeting I intend raising with the CEO to bring in all the developers, all the potential ones for the Docklands,” says Burke.

He says he’d like to sit them down, point out to them that apprenticeships are vital, and find out what commitments they are willing to offer, in terms of work for local residents.

Otherwise it’s a waste of time “trying to sell the Docklands as a development”, he says.

No Monitoring

“I have apprentices from North Strand to Ballybough coming to me,” says Burke. “Only just before you rang me two young kids in the area emailed.”

At the moment, it isn’t compulsory for developers to offer jobs to those in the local area, he says. But he and others in the neighbourhood believe there should be a local-labour clause, to make sure that future planning permissions include that requirement.

Because without it, it seems few local resident are getting work on the building sites in the area.

“The figures we’re talking about are minimal from what I can gather talking to the local employment service,” says Seanie Lambe, chairperson of the Inner City Organisations Network (ICON), and a community activist.

“There’s no one to put pressure on them,” says Lambe.

Sinn Féin Councillor Chris Andrews also says there is a lack of pressure being put on developers across Dublin by either the central government or Dublin City Council to hire local.

Nobody is monitoring or measuring the situation either, says Andrews. “It’s not recorded anywhere. You could have an evidence-based [approach] and certainly that would be a good starting point.”

Working On It

At the St Andrew’s Resource Centre down on Pearse Street, Manager Jim Hargis is tasked with finding construction jobs for short-term and long-term unemployed locals.

It is “a desire” of the council to ensure locals are employed within the SDZ, but it’s not compulsory, he says.

(St Andrew’s Resource Centre is separate to the council, but working quite closely with them on these issues.)

At the moment, when a developer submits a planning application, they have to make sure they meet the criteria for those building in the SDZ if they want to get the go-ahead, says Hargis.

One of the objectives in the Docklands SDZ is to promote a local-employment steering group, which will help residents, especially younger and older people, to access jobs.

Once a contractor has been appointed, Hargis swoops in and makes contact with the subcontractors. This is his pitch:

“This is what you’ve agreed to do and this is what you’ve said in your planning, this is what you’ve said in your compliance statement. So now we’re here,” says Hargis.

In other words, let’s do business.

There were 800 or 900 people employed on the construction site for the waste-to-energy incinerator at Poolbeg that went online earlier this year, and 55 of those were employed through St Andrew’s Resource Centre, says Hargis. (A Dublin City Council spokesperson confirmed these figures.)

Some subcontractors do the site works in phases, which means that labourers aren’t employed for the entire duration of a project. That concerns some locals, says Sinn Féin’s Andrews.

“They take people on and they’re self-employed effectively and a lot of people would be nervous of that type of employment,” he says. “It doesn’t lend itself to keeping people in those sorts of jobs.”

Hargis says that when a development is phased — as it often is on the scale of the building sites in the Docklands — they have an approach for that.

“What we try to do then is work with the developer and say, ‘[…] Tell us what you think the local labour’s going to be.’ And they’ll take their best guess at it according to the sub-contractors,” he said.

There are a couple of people employed on the Capital Dock site at the end of Sir John Rogerson’s Quay at the moment, says Hargis. “That’s it, no more. The expectation from us is that we’ll have 22 in total but not for the whole site.”

St Andrew’s Resource Centre works with a particular group of people, not just local people who happen to need work in general. “When we’re talking about local people getting onto the site and working we’re talking about unemployed and very long-term unemployed people getting a job on a building site,” he says.

That comes with its challenges, as some developers won’t work with those who are unemployed for more than a year, says Hargis. “They have to have their skills upgraded.”

Most of the people employed on the Poolbeg waste-to-energy incinerator through St Andrew’s are still working, says Hargis.

“Virtually everybody who has construction skills, who’ve been unemployed for less than a year, is working,” says Hargis. But this is anecdotal, as Hargis doesn’t track it.

Optional or Not

As Lambe of ICON sees it, the only way that continuous local employment will happen is if it is enshrined in planning permissions.

“I can tell you this after spending nearly 20 years on the Docklands Development Authority,” he says.

Workers’ Party Councillor Éilis Ryan says that, in principal, local quotas are good. “But the reality is, even when you have things like local quotas, local jobs created end up being quite short-term,” she says.

It would be better to put in place training programmes so that people have an ability to access jobs in their own area, says Ryan.

“Because the commercial development is left to the private sector, we don’t really have any control over what kind of jobs are created,” she said.

It’s largely left up to the developers, contractors and the hiring agencies, in other words.

Some construction workers are unionised, says Hargis, largely due to trade agreements reintroduced last year by Fine Gael.

The Poolbeg incinerator site, for instance, was a site that was regulated by the trade agreements and there were no issues, says Hargis. “Other sites that are not regulated, that’s a different story.”

But most of the Docklands sites would be regulated, he says. So are local quotas the answer, as Lambe suggests?

In the original Docklands Masterplan from 2008 there was a stipulation for developers that a percentage of those employed must be hired locally.

“It didn’t work,” says Hargis. “It wouldn’t work, principally because, if you’re saying to SISK [a contractor] you have to employ 10 percent of your labour locally, we say, ‘We can’t’.”

The number of qualified workers simply aren’t there at the moment to fill those positions, he says.”It’s impossible.”

Hargis looks at it like this: if there are 22 building sites in the Docklands and each of them employed 10 people, that would be 220 construction workers. “We don’t have 220 [qualified] men to give them.”

“But I don’t want to give the impression that construction companies are running around offering us jobs,” he says. “They’re not.”

Hargis says there has been an assurance from Dublin City Council that if the developers don’t comply with what was originally agreed in their own management plan – which they draw up after planning has been granted to show how they will meet the SDZ objectives – then planning enforcement will shut the site down. “One-day stoppage, cost them a fortune,” says Hargis.

It’s worth bearing in mind, says Hargis, that this is only the beginning of major construction within the SDZ, says Hargis. “We see this as a long-term, six-year affair and what we don’t want to do is fuck up at the beginning.”

Some developers, such as Kennedy Wilson and Ballymore, are “really keen” to employ local people, says Hargis.

“The caveat they put to us, though, is that they have to be workers,” says Hargis, meaning people who are determined and reliable.

“If somebody walks in here now and says they really want to work on construction I’ll say ‘Okay, go through the process,’ ” he says.

For local places like St Andrew’s, another challenge is that they have to compete with employment agencies, which are a big part of the construction industry across Europe.

If a subcontractor gets work from a main contractor on a Thursday evening, they might need workers to start the following Monday, he says.

So the subcontractor will phone up an agency, perhaps in the Czech Republic or Poland, who will provide the labour at short notice.

“We have to compete with that,” says Hargis. “If we don’t compete with that we won’t get anybody to work.”

A contractor once gave Hargis a deadline of the following morning to find a forklift driver, with the promise that they would have positions for two inexperienced “general operatives” if he could make that happen.

“That motivated us. The site was over in Clondalkin, so we got him over there the next morning. They were delighted with him and we got the two inexperienced general ops,” he says. “That means that we got two fellows who had no chance and they’re still working.”

Getting Ready

Each month, the Dublin Docklands office of the council meets with local employment services like St Andrew’s, according to a council spokesperson.

The success of the local-labour project rests on the ability of local employment services “to get enough local, mainly men, trained in construction work”.

The next target is to get training in place, “locate it within the Docklands and deliver the course during hours and circumstances that mimic a real construction site”, said the spokesperson.

The Docklands office and the Central Area office have committed to fund the first two of these courses, the council spokesperson said.

St Andrew’s Resource Centre is now in the process of working with Dublin City Council and Dublin Port to deliver this, the first construction-skills course for around 16 people, says Hargis.

“We’d be fairly confident 10 of those could go straight into work,” he says. “They are all Dublin Docklanders.”

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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