• Harrison Moore

Construction’s latent potential

When developers want to build something big like a train station or a skyscraper or a power plant, they hire what’s known as a major contractor. Major contractors don’t actually build anything themselves; they manage projects, breaking them down into packages and then outsourcing those packages to sub-contractors who specialise in whatever it is: civil engineering, scaffolding, electrics.

Sub-contractors have their own teams of tradespeople who they employ directly. As we know, when we’re directly employed, we do a deal with our employer. The deal is: we give up our rights to choose where we work, how much we get paid and what times we start and finish, among other things. And in return, we get a bundle of securities like a salary and pension; sick pay and redundancy pay; minimum notice periods and the right to not be unfairly dismissed. Nothing new there.

But construction projects don’t get built by direct employees alone. There’s another group of individuals that contractors increasingly depend on to get the job done: they’re known as temporary agency workers. These people are essentially construction’s ‘gig’ workers and they, too, give up their autonomy. But, as we’ll see, they get little security in return.

Gig work is nothing new to construction. Contractors have been using recruitment agencies to hire gig workers for decades. This is mainly because projects often need a big push at particular times from one trade or another in order to meet tight delivery schedules. It can be difficult to predict when labour will be needed and for how long. It’s more cost-effective, from a contractor’s point of view, to hire gig workers on-demand than it is to have an employed workforce idling.

In fact, if you’re a contractor bidding for work, you’re at a huge advantage if you can show that you have a potential gig workforce of 1,000 over a competitor that has a fixed workforce of 100. Gig work is so fundamental to contractors’ ability to win work and deliver it, that they build it into their very business models.

I was a gig-working electrician myself for seven years and then I went to art school where I was encouraged to make stuff, break stuff and question everything. Since then, I’ve become obsessed with this corner of the world and I’ve been trying to come up with solutions to the challenges I faced as a gig worker. Take it from me, construction gig workers are up against it. The job’s already physically demanding, often cold, wet and dirty. On top of that, gig workers live with the constant threat of job insecurity, unpredictable earnings, no community, the list goes on.

But there’s an underlying challenge I want to talk about here, which I think is quite unique to construction. It’s a challenge that nobody seems to be thinking much about. But if it was solved (or at least addressed), not only could it go a long way to giving workers more job security, it could also unleash a massive amount of potential that’s currently lying latent in the workforce. And not only that, it could even serve the interests of trade unions and their members in the process.

To understand this challenge, we need to look at the deal gig workers have with contractors and we also need to get into the mindset of a typical gigging tradesman.

The deal between gig workers and contractors

We’ve already mentioned the deal between employees and employers: employees give up autonomy for security. But the deal between gig workers and contractors isn’t really a deal at all. This is because gig workers give up their autonomy without getting a bundle of securities in return.

Gig workers arrive on-site and give up their rights to choose their hours, their pay, the work they do and the way they do it because they’re always under the direction, supervision and control of contractors. And yet, despite providing their services in a way that’s indistinguishable from that of employees, gig workers get no pension, no sick pay, no protection from unfair dismissal nor many of the other securities employees get. The official term for this arrangement is ‘disguised employment.’ It’s where workers have the label ‘self-employed’ but when you look closely, they’re working as employees.

To give you a quick peep behind the curtain of disguised employment, we can look at the issue of specialist tools (impact drills, for example). In the normal world, employees are provided with specialist tools whereas self-employed people are expected to provide their own. But in construction, so called ‘self-employed’ gig workers don’t like bringing their own specialist tools because instinctively they know they’re not really self-employed. When they’re under the thumb of the contractor, they feel that specialist tools ought to be provided.

What happens is that gig workers either begrudgingly bring their specialist tools or, what’s more likely, they refuse to, in which case the contractor either begrudgingly lends them specialist tools or simply fires them and hires someone else. This has happened to me and you hear gig workers and contractors complaining about it a lot.

Contractors are having their cake and eating it. They get to hire workers on-demand to provide services in the same way and under the same level of control as employees, but they don’t have to provide a bundle of securities when it comes to compensating them.

Having said all that, it is important to say that there’s nothing necessarily malicious going on here. No smoking gun. Disguised employment is just the result of a combination of (1) contractors wanting more efficiency and (2) many tradespeople wanting more independence.

But here’s the big challenge. The vast majority of construction gig workers are not happy about this deal. In fact, I’ve never met one who is. Seven years in the game wasn’t enough time to meet a job-satisfied gig worker. Since then, I’ve gone on to survey more than 400 gig workers and have countless conversations with many others. They all tell tales about job insecurity, unpredictable earnings, no community spirit and the general demise of their trade.

How do contractors do it?

So, how do contractors get this deal over the line every time?

They get this deal over the line by separating themselves as far as possible from the nuts and bolts of hiring and firing. Contractors outsource the job of finding gig workers to recruitment agencies who then outsource the job of paying gig workers to payroll companies. What results is a bizarre four-way relationship. Gig worker has contract with payroll; payroll has contract with agency; agency has contract with contractor; and contractor is in charge of gig worker on site.

This four-way relationship creates confusion and more insecurity for gig workers. Who, for example, is responsible if their wages are paid incorrectly, late or not paid at all (these are all common things)? What rights and responsibilities do gig workers have in respect of the payroll, the agency and the contractor?

If you ask any construction gig worker, they’ll likely tell you the industry is unfair and unjust. Agencies and payrolls come and go. Names and faces come and go. Promises come and go. There’s no accountability and, worse, no recourse when things go wrong. Gig workers don’t feel optimistic about the likelihood of things improving for them; in fact, they believe things will only get worse.

Why do gig workers do it?

So, why do so many gig workers go along with all this?

There are important practical reasons. For example, trying to negotiate terms with a recruiter is a fool’s errand because they’ll just give the job to someone else. There’s no time to negotiate; jobs are snapped up as quickly as they’re advertised.

On top of that, many gig workers don’t push back because they’re afraid of ending up on blacklists where their future opportunities are put in jeopardy.

Even more problematic is the fact that so few gig workers actually read their contracts. Contracts are written in incomprehensible language and I’ve never met a gig worker who can afford the luxury of legal advice on every new job, which occurs every eight weeks on average. When you’ve been a gig worker, you know that this whole contractual process is a one-sided charade because you can’t use the negotiation process in the way it’s designed to be used. It feels less like a deal and more like an imposition.

There are more fundamental reasons why gig workers put up with this deal. Many of them (in my experience, I reckon it’s about 50%) simply will not see themselves as anything but self-employed despite the fact that they give up their autonomy on site. This is not, as you might think, because they’re unaware or in denial of their disguised employment. It’s because they have a different set of priorities. A different set of needs.

Many workers want to be their own boss

One of the distinguishing features of the construction gig workforce is that it's buzzing with a particular type of bloke. He’s a bloke who is proud of the skills he’s learned. He gets his sense of masculinity, his sense of freedom and many other things from his skills. He’s an ambitious bloke, a strong-minded bloke, maybe even a bit stubborn, and he does not want to answer to an employer. He has a vision of himself steering his own ship. What he needs more than anything else is to be his own boss. There’s a long history of this mentality in construction. It’s in the gene pool. And this is why it’s no surprise it’s the oldest gig industry in the world.

During the past few decades, contractors have been sensitive to this need for autonomy in tradesmen, responding to it by developing in a way that capitalises on disguised employees – employees whose own insistence on being self-employed plays straight into contractors’ hands. Today, we have a gig workforce that offers contractors greater efficiency, yes. But it contains tens of thousands of tradespeople with unmet needs. Half of them need direct employment; half of them need genuine self-employment. And all of them are not getting what they need.

The sociologist Lynsey Hanley says, ‘Knowing that another way of life is possible and knowing how to mobilise the resources needed to make that way of life possible are different things entirely.’ Too many gig workers don’t become their own boss perhaps because they feel they don’t have the money, the network, the knowledge, the time or the confidence needed. Unfortunately, they cling to an inauthentic version of self-employment and suffer this so-called ‘deal’ as well as the creeping disappointment of unmet needs.

As for the other half, those who want direct employment, the situation’s as bad for them because they’re always going to struggle to make collective progress while half the workforce pulls in the other direction.

I’ve been in union meetings where the room has divided down the middle over this issue. I’ve seen blokes held apart from fighting over it. I can understand why those campaigning for rights under direct employment feel frustrated with those who seem to want to avoid it. But we need to approach the challenge in a more empathetic way by understanding and accepting that there is a significant number of tradespeople who want to start their own business but need some help doing so.

If we can recognize the latent potential of these blokes who want to steer their own ship and help them find ways to become their own boss in the truest sense of the word, then they’ll feel more fulfilled and we might all benefit from what they end up creating. Sure, they’ll have a whole new set of challenges to face but at least they’ll be the challenges of their own authentic choice.

And once the genuinely self-employed are no longer in gig work, once there are no more hosts for disguised employment, then the trade unions and others who are campaigning for direct employment might make more progress because the workforce will be united in its needs. Perhaps then we’d see an end to construction gig work altogether.

The future of construction won’t just need an improved image or an increase in apprenticeships or more industrial action. The future of construction will also need education and encouragement for the thousands of people who are snared in gig work but who really — really — want to be their own boss.

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