Why construction workers are demanding more

Fuelled by a tight labour market, increased pay for frontline workers during the pandemic and successful bargaining for PPE, workers around the world have been walking out to demand a better deal. Lucy Barnard finds out how construction workers have been taking part. 

Les Immigrés Arrêtent Le Grand Paris (Immigrants Stop Greater Paris) screamed the banner held by a small group of demonstrators at the soon-to-be-completed Olympic badminton venue in northern suburbs of Paris.

In total, several dozen protestors stood in front of the fences surrounding the Paris 2024 Olympic construction site at Porte de la Chapelle Arena on 1 December 2023, demanding contracts and French residency permits for undocumented workers who they say had been informally employed on this and other construction sites around the city in exploitative conditions.

Undocumented workers and the CGT Paris demonstrate. Photo: NurPhoto via Reuters

Standing in front of a row of site cabins and aerial access platforms at one of the biggest Paris 2024 Olympic construction sites, they beat drums and chanted through loudspeakers “Pas de papiers, pas de J.O.” (No Olympic Games without papers) before continuing their protest on the Parisian streets.

In a statement posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, the workers, who mostly come from Africa and Eastern Europe, and their supporters laid out their demands in full: Full reinstatement for all the striking workers on the Arena construction site; legal residency and work permits for all the undocumented workers on the Olympic and Greater Paris construction sites; and the withdrawal of France’s new hardline immigration bill.

“We may not have the right papers, but we have rights,” they said. “And the first right of all workers is to organise ourselves and to strike.”

Workers say that they are not paid enough to be able to rent accommodation in Paris and that they have been denied legal contracts, pay slips, paid holiday and overtime.

Their complaints echo those of many construction labourers around the world, who say that the system of contracting out work to temp agencies and subcontractors makes it easy for large companies to pass the buck and avoid providing decent working conditions for construction teams – especially those at greatest risk of exploitation.

Why are construction workers striking at some Paris Olympic sites?

The protesting workers, who are also backed by protest groups including a branch of the National Confederation of Workers and the so-called Black Vests or Gilets Noirs, claim that after a previous strike at the Olympic site in October, more than half the 100 or so workers employed without papers on Olympic sites were given Cerfa administrative forms which allow illegal workers to apply to have their status regularised.

In January 2023, French newspaper Libération, published an exposé interviewing some of the undocumented craftsmen who say they have been working on the Paris Olympic sites by using assumed identities whilst hoping to get enough paperwork to obtain legal residency and work permits. The newspaper compared these conditions with those faced by migrant workers labouring on the construction sites for the Qatar World Cup which were widely criticised by international human rights organisations.

The strikes by undocumented construction workers are just the latest in a series of widespread industrial disputes and protests in France last year which included national stoppages and demonstrations over the French government’s plans to raise the retirement age to 64 from 62.

And the French were not alone. Around the world construction workers were among the many sectors taking to industrial action last year as the inequities of the pandemic, combined with inflation and dissatisfaction with working conditions, fuelled a rise in worker unrest, dubbed by many the “hot labour summer.”

Hot Labour Summer of 2023

Across Europe, a surge of new industrial action has been taking place in Germany, the UK, Portugal, Greece and the Netherlands, after a long-term decline in trade union activity over the past 20 years.

That includes workers in the transport sector, farmers, freight carriers, teachers, railway staff, doctors and civil servants.

In the USA, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, reports that there were 30 major work stoppages due to industrial action in 2023, the greatest number since the year 2000. Elsewhere in the world workers as diverse as Mexican federal court workers, Sri Lankan rail workers, South Korean teachers, traders from Pakistan, Indonesian labourers and Cape Town taxi drivers all walked out. Indonesian labourers staged mass protests in 2023. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters

Construction workers, often employed on a casual or self-employed basis via a series of contractors and subcontractors, have historically been slower to resort to collective action.

Nonetheless, around the world in 2023, some construction workers too have been involved in strikes and other industrial action, especially in disputes centred around working conditions and pay rates.

In December 2023, thousands of engineering construction workers employed on power and pharmaceutical sites in the UK via the National Agreement for Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI) voted for strike action after rejecting a two year pay offer from bosses which they said was not enough to compensate them for years of falling wages.

“NAECI workers have seen their pay fall further and further behind in real terms as a result of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis,” said Unite general secretary Sharon Graham. “Meanwhile most NAECI employers have benefitted from huge profits generated from rocketing energy and fuel prices.”

In February, two dozen roofing employees at Mt Baker Roofing in Washington State downed tools over a dispute about the company’s alleged lack of provision of drinking water and restroom facilities on job sites – something that the company strongly denied. The strike was supported by independent labour union Familias Unidas Por La Justicia.

Another US industrial dispute in 2023 involved heavy equipment operators in Missouri, represented by operating engineers’ union Local 513, who went on strike in May 2023 over negotiations with the local Associated General Contractors regarding a new contract.

After ten days of intense negotiations, the union announced it had reached a new agreement.

Why are strikers winning ‘significant’ gains? 

Fuelled by a tight labour market, and successful bargaining for PPE and increased pay for frontline workers during the pandemic, many of the striking workers, like the Missouri heavy equipment operators have made significant gains – something which is in turn encouraging other groups of workers to take action too.

“Local 513 has a long history of fighting for the rights and interests of our members,” said Local 513 president and business manager Brian Graff in a statement. “Our union keeps the entire construction industry in mind when we negotiate. This contract is a just agreement for our membership that includes fair compensation, benefits and dignity on the job site.”

Moreover, as the global skills shortage continues to bite, companies and governments around the world are offering sweeters and incentives that also strengthen workers’ hands in negotiations.

These include the government of Western Australia, which in December announced it was offering visa subsidies of up to £6,000 (US$7,636) to construction workers from the UK and Ireland willing to relocate. The scheme is also open to workers from countries including: Brunei, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Other countries which have recently eased visa requirements for skilled construction workers include the UK and Canada.   

Back in Paris, where the hard deadline for the Olympic Games construction work is mounting at the same time that a restrive new immigration law has been passed by the French parliament, the Confederation National de Travailleurs (CNT-SO) says that more than half of the workers who took part in the first strike in October have received the paperwork necessary for their regularisation.

“We are told, you are not human, you are only the workforce. Work yourselves to the bone in the toughest sectors, sleep in poor accommodation. At any time, we can throw you out,” says a CNT-SO spokesman. “We are split up, employed by temp agencies, subcontractors and subsidiaries – a many headed hydra that allows to exploit us. But it is time for them to pay.”

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