Strike over accidents and subcontracting in construction sector

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On 24- 25 February 2000, Spanish construction workers' trade unions held a general strike in the sector, in protest against the level of industrial accidents. The unions believe that the accidents are due largely to precarious employment and uncontrolled subcontracting of work.

The major economic recovery that has taken place in Spain since 1996 has been particularly strong in the construction sector. This growth was reflected in a 7% increase in employment in construction from 1996 to 1999. However, temporary employment has also grown, and is practically double the average for all sectors (61.5% of all employment, compared with 33%). In 1999, permanent employment contracts in the construction sector represented only 3% of the total, compared with 9% for all sectors. Most of the contracts in construction (75%) are "work and service" (obra y servicio) contracts, which can be terminated at the discretion of the companies, because in subcontracting what constitutes a "work" is not subject to objective rules. Furthermore, the average size of the companies operating in the sector has continued to fall, and the majority now have fewer than five workers. This makes it extraordinarily difficult to monitor and control the basic regulations on health and safety risk prevention.

In this situation, the number of accidents at work has increased in the construction sector (ES9710126F), as well as more widely (ES9904215F). In the economy as a whole – according to the confederal health and safety department of the Trade Union Confederation of Workers' Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) – the annual number of accidents involving time off work increased by 40.5% from 1996 to 1999. This cannot be simply attributed to the growth in economic activity, which increased by only 16.5% over the same period. Most dramatically, the number of fatal accidents increased by 13.5% over 1996-9. In the construction sector, the situation is even worse: in 1993 only 12% of wage-earners in the sector suffered an accident, whereas in 1999 the figure had risen to 18%. In 1999, there were 290 deaths due to accidents in the construction sector.

Strike against the high death rate

In response to this rapid escalation of accidents, the construction sector trade unions affiliated to CC.OO and the General Workers' Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) - FECOMA-CC.OO and MCA-UGT- called a general strike in the industry on 24 and 25 February 2000 (following similar earlier actions - ES9711131F) in the hope of bring about a radical change in the situation.

In the past few years, the unions have identified what they see as the immediate causes of the increase in accidents: failure to observe the regulations set out in the Law on Prevention of Labour Risks, which have been in force since 1995 (ES9708216F); little training of workers, which may explain some imprudent actions on their part; lack of concern by the government to enforce the law; and insufficient resources at the Labour Inspectorate (Inspección de Trabajo). The unions decided to call a strike in February because they believe that the situation cannot change radically unless the fundamental causes are dealt with. These causes are perceived to be precarious employment and the use of subcontracting.

Because of the prevalence of precarious employment contracts, say the unions, the workers concerned cannot be trained, do not have full labour and trade union rights with regard to risk prevention, and are obliged to accept unduly long working hours which lead to a lack of attention, due to fatigue. This argument is supported by the fact that 95% of workplace accidents involve workers with precarious contracts. Furthermore, subcontracting facilitates non-observation of regulations and makes it difficult to control safety. In this situation, long working hours, piecework, work pressure and excessive overtime lead to serious occupational risks that often end in accidents. Some 90% of all serious and fatal accidents occur in subcontracted work.

CC.OO and UGT thus called the two-day general strike in construction, seeking stable, high-quality employment with rights and the regulation of subcontracting. The strike was observed by 88% of workers of the sector.

The strike also received considerable support from construction unions in other countries. In response to the health and safety situation in the Spanish construction sector, the general secretary of the International Federation of Building and Woodworkers (IFBWW) sent a letter to the the Spanish Prime Minister, José María Aznar, supporting the strike called by FECOMA-CCOO and MCA-UGT and regretting that the government had so far rejected the unions' proposals to regulate subcontracting in the sector. The letter also alleged systematic non-fulfilment of the Law on Prevention of Labour Risks by employers and the government's inability to take action on this point. Letters were also sent by the general secretaries of national construction unions in many countries.

The unions' proposals

The strike was not an isolated action, but sought to reinforce many other initiatives taken in previous months. These actions include pressure on the prosecutor-general's department by the union confederations to open a section dealing with industrial accidents. This section would be empowered to investigate each accident and take any appropriate legal action. Some regional prosecutor's offices have already begun to do this.

CC.OO has also presented to parliament a "popular legislative initiative" (Iniciativa Legislativa Popular, ILP), endorsed by 500,000 signatures, to regulate subcontracting (ES9812193N). The ILP is a procedure provided for under the Spanish constitution that allows ordinary citizens to present proposals directly to Congress if they are endorsed by a certain number of signatures. The main contents of the proposal are that:

  • subcontractor companies should obtain official authorisation, which would force them to have the workforce and organisational structure necessary to be able to accomplish their obligations;
  • companies which perform subcontracts for the public authorities would not be able to outsource more than 50% of the work and would have to guarantee that 30% of their workforce are employed on permanent contracts;
  • companies which perform subcontracts for private companies would not be able to outsource part of the work and would have to guarantee that 30% of their workforce were employed on permanent contracts during the previous year.

CC.OO is also calling for the appointment of "regional safety delegates" (delegados territoriales de prevención), with sufficient resources and powers to enforce fulfilment of the Law on Prevention of Labour Risks by companies.

Employers and authorities

According to research findings, 76% of Spanish employers with between six and 50 workers have little or no knowledge of the Law on Prevention of Labour Risks. This percentage falls to 62% in the same group of companies when there is a trade union safety delegate present, indicating that a union presence plays an important part in developing a new culture of risk prevention. In general, there are currently few resources that allow the Law's application to be monitored and, it is claimed by critics, little political will to enforce the sanctions imposed by the Labour Inspectorate.

The Labour Inspectorate has taken some important steps in the past few months. In 1999, the Inspectorate increased the number of visits to building sites, and the number and amount of the sanctions imposed. Several regional public prosecution services –as in Madrid and Alicante– have announced or taken action on their own initiative arising from industrial accidents. The trade unions, with the agreement of employers' associations and the autonomous communities (regions), drew up an action plan on industrial accidents in October 1998, seeking to transform the provisions of the Law on Prevention of Labour Risks into effective action.

Commentary

All the various actions discussed above - including the law and the enormous efforts that the unions have made to appoint and train safety delegates, train workers, report infringements, make demands etc - still come up against two fundamental obstacles.

The first is that few companies are willing to implement a law that requires resources, monitoring, rationalisation of work, and greater time spent on certain jobs, all of which means lower profits and taking a long-term view. In this respect, a greater effort by the labour authorities and by the public prosecutors is required in order to implement the law and to take legal action when infringement leads to accidents. This is a question of simple justice.

The second obstacle is even more important. The predominant type of employment contract (temporary) and its demands prevent workers from devoting the necessary effort to training and the necessary care and diligence to their work. This demonstrates once more what has often been said by experts and trade unionists: precariousness means danger. However, trends in relationships between companies – uncontrolled subcontracting – not only increase this precariousness, but also prevent the authorities from monitoring the implementation of the Law on Prevention of Labour Risks and make such implementation difficult for companies that are concerned about safety. The regulation of subcontracting would make it possible to determine the responsibilities of the companies at any given time (Fausto Miguélez, QUIT)

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