30 July 1998 Edition

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Sean Treacy killed on building site

By Roisín de Rossa

Last week two building workers lost their lives in a tragic accident in Co Kildare. One of them was Sean Treacy, well known republican from the Heath; the other was Robert Dunne from Robertstown.

Both were working at Ballymany, just outside Newbridge. They were laying sewerage piping 15 foot down when the trench they were in collapsed. Sean was only on the site by coincidence. He was helping out a friend - as so often he did.

It took over an hour for workers and firemen to scrabble the earth away with their bare hands to reach them.

There was no shuttering on the trench, yet in construction sites in the UK shuttering deep trenches is regulation. The site would normally have been closed for the traditional annual fortnight holiday, but stayed open in the rush to complete the luxury homes in a multi-million pound development.

Their deaths bring to 14 the number of deaths on building sites this year.

``It should be regulation on all the sites that developers pay a full time health and safety inspector,'' said a colleague of Sean's, who grew up with him.

There are now over 110,000 people working in the building industry. One in every 50 can expect to be injured or maimed this year.

The Minister for Labour Affairs, Tom Kitt, speculates ``The tremendous increase in the number of workers more than likely means young and untrained workers are being taken on.'' The clear implication is that it is the building workers' own fault that they get killed on the sites.

SIPTU has proposed that workers themselves become safety auditors on the site and have the power to shut down the site as the only way that safety can be improved. These proposals have been with Mr Kitt since May.

Meanwhile the Construction Industry Federation declares that safety on the sites is at the very top of its agenda. The CIF will look at SIPTU's proposals, but considers it would be ``highly unusual'' to grant statutory powers - such as the power to shut a site down - to `non-statutory' workers. Unusual indeed.

There were six fatal accidents in construction in the 80s. Why have things got so much worse in the last few years? Most commentators believe it is because subcontractors have replaced direct labour, where workers are employed `off the books' on C45s.

About half the workers on the sites are on the C45 system, where a worker is in the `black economy', without proper insurance. Because they are `self-employed', workers have no rights to holiday pay, sick benefit, redundancy, travel time, subsistence payments, or any of the rights which workers have long fought to win, including the right to life and safe working conditions.

Under the ``subbie'' system, the dole subsidises the sub-contractors' wage bill, and in most cases it's a ruthless, cut-throat race to get the job finished with little regard to safety or participation of a labour force in determining safety conditions.

``The subbie system is the lump all over again,'' says Dennis Farrell, regional organiser BATU (Building and Allied Trades Union) which successfully took on the courts and the employers in the battle to reinstate direct labour on the sites, and better conditions for building workers.

BATU closed down Crampton's DCU site when workers refused to accept cash in hand payment. They demanded legal employment, the payment of PAYE and direct employment by the company.

The Department of Employment and the Tax office refused to take up against this illegal `employment'. When BATU workers went on strike for legal conditions of employment, the Courts decided it was impossible for two or three workers to hold up a multi-million pound site, injuncted the workers to stop the picket, call off their strike, to cease leafleting, or discussing the strike in a `provocative manner' and charged the union £500,000 for Cramptons' costs.

However BATU ignored the injunctions. They formed a group called `The Building Workers Against the Black Economy' and closed down two other Crampton sites. As the pickets spread, Crampton's capitulated, reinstated the workers who had been sacked and paid the union's costs. Since then BATU has won several disputes refusing to deal with sub-contractors or to work illegally, in Carlow, Kilkenny, Limerick and Monaghan.

But the fact that these battles have been so hard fought, that the SIPTU proposal still lies on Mr Kitt's desk, that the Revenue and courts were not prepared to enforce legal conditions of employment, has meant that building workers, like Robert and Sean, must still take their life in their hands going to work.

Sean took his life in his hands many times - as several generations of Republicans know - underground, in the air, up at the border in the 50s Campaign, cutting down trees to welcome Princess Margaret to Birr, driving a lorry load of food aid along precipice roads in Bosnia, and so much more that will never be told.

He didn't need to die digging sewage pipes for luxury homes in Newbridge one Monday afternoon.

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