Unreal estate

As a Tower Rises in Docklands, Construction Workers Protest

In the rain, with banners and signs, they were gathered at a construction site on Hanover Quay.

Plans for the building rising from the site call for 120 apartments – shiny and expensive –overlooking the Docklands and the Liffey, plus a restaurant and café.

It was 7am last Friday on this Cairn Homes site, and the group of workers and trade-union officials had been there for about an hour so far, protesting.

The issue: they say companies are cutting paperwork corners in ways that can mean less pay, or at least fewer benefits, for the workers.

A bricklayer at the site stood with his friend at the protest. Both of them, members of the Bricklayers and Allied Traders Union (BATU), gave examples.

The first said he’s worked in construction for 39 years, and last year, he lost a mate in an accident at the council’s Dolphin’s Barn regeneration project. (The council said by email that this was not a workplace accident.)

“His wife and family got nothing. That’s a bricklayer we worked with, and it’s going to happen to more people,” the bricklayer said.

His friend added his own complaint: “They don’t put you down as your own name, so you go into the tax office [to see if it’s been paid], and there’s no record. You’re not on the system.”

It’s worse for workers from outside Ireland. “A lot of the foreign tradesmen are getting fleeced,” one of the men says.

Someone brings coffee for the gathered crowd gathered to protest non-compliance issues in the construction sector and what they say is bogus self-employment.

They stay about two hours before they have to leave for work.

Non-Compliance

“Our big problem is compliance with the SEO [Sectoral Employment Order],” says Andrew McGuinness, an industrial organiser with the union SIPTU.

He says some Cairn Homes sites don’t fully comply with the SEO, according to which workers should be paid between €13.77 and €18.36 per hour, and should have an employer-employee contribution pension, death-in-service contribution, sick pay, and other benefits.

“A number of [PAYE] workers from subcontractors are not in receipt of SEO rates, and they’re [the subcontractors are] using non-taxable allowances – for food and travel for example – to make up the net pay,” says McGuinness.

There’s little difference in the take-home pay for workers, he says, but the employer pays less PRSI, and the worker doesn’t pay the Universal Social Charge, which means they might have trouble applying for a mortgage if they thought their gross pay was their net pay.

“Allowances aren’t earnings; they’re [workers are] looking more at net pay, and they might not understand why they’re paying so little tax,” says McGuinness.

The first thing a worker does when they start work at a site is get the rates of pay from the contractor, says Brian McAvinue, of the Connect Trade Union. “Cairn is refusing access to that information, and hiding behind data protection.”

Building sites often use layers of contractors and subcontractors who employ people to work on them.

A spokesperson for Cairn Homes, reached by email, did not respond directly to queries whether the company had refused to provide access to information on rates of pay for workers on its sites.

McAvinue said his union has “a collective agreement with CIF [Construction Industry Federation] that appropriate grades must be used”, but it has to rely on members and workers to report that they’re being underpaid.

The collective agreement is not legally binding. Rather, it’s a commitment from the CIF that it will comply with the SEO. (CIF did not respond to attempts to get in touch.)

Bogus Self-Employment

An employer can save money by registering a worker as self-employed, instead of putting them on the payroll as the proper PAYE worker they should be.

Union representatives say bogus self-employment is widespread on the construction sites beneath all those cranes that now dot the city’s skyline – and that often workers are not even aware that they’ve been registered as self-employed.

But, as the union reps tell it, Cairn is not engaging with the unions on their concerns about non-compliance and bogus self-employment.

In an email exchange with Connect about a different site (one in Clongriffin), in which the union asked for access to the site and a list of contractors, to check for compliance, the company said it was surprised by the union’s request, and that there was no legal basis for it, so it wouldn’t accommodate the request.

The union is aware of the lack of a legal basis around site access, replies McAvinue. But it’s never been an issue before, and it’s traditionally the way the union builds up a working relationship with contractors.

However the union gets the information, writes McAvinue, if it finds non-compliance, it will take action to address it.

When employers take on somebody as self-employed rather than PAYE, they make a saving of 10.85 percent on PRSI, says Billy Wall of the Plasterers Union, OPATSI.

Wall suggests that builders be made to pay a 10.85 percent levy on any worker they take on, to contribute to a fund out of which workers will be paid if they’re found to be bogus self-employed by the Workplace Relations Commission.

This would help prevent contractors from registering workers under false names, says Wall, something the bricklayers at the protest say is a practice.

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Protection did not respond directly to emailed queries about whether such a levy would be feasible, and how the department ensures that workers are not unknowingly self-employed.

Instead, the spokesperson said that an employee or employers who fails to provide a payslip, or falsifies information on a payslip is guilty of an offence under the Payment of Wages Act 1991. 

Zuzia Whelan portrait
Zuzia Whelan

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at zwhelan@dublininquirer.com.

 

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