Sharp increase in accidents in the construction sector
Construction still has the highest rate of industrial accidents amongst all sectors of the Spanish economy. For some time the trade unions have been protesting about employment insecurity and lack of safety in this sector, and demanding compliance with existing regulations. Then in August 1997 the number of industrial accidents increased dramatically, which brought matters to a head; health and safety has now become one of the main sources of dispute in the sector.
Spain has the highest rate of industrial accidents in Europe (ES9708216F), but the situation is particularly serious in the construction sector, as the table below indicates.
Source: Boletín de Estadísticas Laborales and EPA (annual average).
Construction has traditionally suffered a very high number of industrial accidents, especially serious and fatal accidents. Of every thousand construction workers, over one hundred suffer an accident each year. Furthermore, the accident rate in construction is not only already the highest, but is also increasing in comparison with other sectors: in 1988 there were 102 accidents per thousand workers in construction compared with 100 in industry but by 1996 this had risen to 105 compared with 86 in industry. The proportion of serious and fatal accidents is also higher in construction, as well as in agriculture, than in the other sectors.
Insecure employment and industrial accidents
The trade unions have for some time been claiming that the high rate of industrial accidents in construction is closely related to working conditions in the sector.
Outsourcing and subcontracting are far more widespread in construction than in other sectors. The objective is to reduce labour costs and fixed infrastructural costs. Large construction companies thus tend to become service companies that subcontract the successive stages of their work programmes. Small companies and self-employed workers are those who finally carry out the building work.
This management model has led to a sharp increase in precarious employment. Temporary employment has always been high in the sector due to the cyclical nature of the activity and its geographical dispersion. Other factors are added to this: the construction sector has traditionally been a "transitional" sector with a high demand for unskilled workers which in the past helped labour to move from agriculture to industry.
However, there has been an extraordinary increase in labour turnover and temporary employment over the last few years, due to outsourcing and subcontracting: in 1996 54% of construction workers had been working in the sector for less than a year and 47% had a temporary contract ( according to the EPA labour force survey, second quarter). This lack of experience - and qualifications - is not conducive to safety at work.
Furthermore, in such a fragmented production structure with such a high level of temporary employment, there is very little legal and trade union protection. According to commentators, competition in the sector makes it necessary to work against the clock and to pay little attention to safety at work. Staged subcontracting dilutes the employers' responsibilities in this area: in some firms existing safety regulations are not applied, whilst in others they are observed only formally because in practice the workers are forced to ignore them in order to get the work done on time. All this explains why the accident rate is so high.
Fairly recently, the employers and trade unions adopted several measures to deal with this situation. In 1992, the employers' association, the National Federation of Construction (Confederación Nacional de la Construcción), and the trade unions, UGT and CC.OO, signed the first general agreement in the construction sector. This agreement committed the signatories to create a joint organisation to prevent industrial hazards and to promote training in the sector. Shortly afterwards, the Labour Foundation of the Construction Sector (Fundación Laboral de la Construcción), a bipartite institution, was set up to pursue these aims, and is doing important work in the area of health and safety at work.
At present, a new general agreement is being negotiated and health and safety at work is one of the central topics. Negotiations are being carried out along two lines: the promotion of measures to secure a greater degree of security in employment and training; and the establishment of mechanisms to apply the Law on Prevention of Industrial Hazards to the sector, which will involve greater participation of the workers in this area. However, the process of negotiations is difficult, since the complexity of the situation requires measures to be taken across a great variety of areas.
At the same time, the unions have been demanding greater involvement of the public administration to deal with the problem. In the Community of Madrid, UGT and CC.OO have reached an agreement with the regional administration to give priority in the awarding of public contracts to companies that have stable workforces and a commitment not to subcontract. In Catalonia, CC.OO has also begun negotiations with the administration, after an intensive campaign against precarious employment and its effects on the accident rate in the sector.
The sharp increase in industrial accidents recorded in August 1997 has focused attention on the situation. UGT called a construction sector strike in Catalonia on 20 October and for the rest of Spain on 22 October, to coincide with a rally on health and safety at work and prevention of industrial hazards that had previously been called by all sectors. The aim of the strike is to protest against the situation in the sector and to persuade both the social partners and the administration to take measures in the short term.
Over the last few years the relationship between insecure employment and the accident rate has become increasingly clear. This explains why the industrial accident rate is higher in Spain than in other European countries, and why it is higher in the construction sector. The agreements reached in the construction sector are a proof of this: not only the unions, but also the employers and the public administration are increasingly inclined to adopt measures to counter the risks. Health and safety at work is becoming one of the main areas of negotiation in the sector as well as one of the main sources of dispute, and this involves facing up to the problem of precarious employment. The solutions, however, are not easy. It is necessary to take action across a great variety of areas which requires a degree of consensus amongst the social partners and public administration that is still far from having been reached. (Maria Caprile, CIREM Foundation)