- 26 Mar 20
Construction companies have been told that they can stay open and active by the Government. But unions and activists have become increasingly concerned at the difficulties in maintaining the social distancing required to avoid the spread of Covid-19..
Workers' rights advocates have called for the closure of construction sites across the country as builders grapple with maintaining social distancing measures devised to stop the spread of coronavirus on sites.
In his latest announcement of restrictions on social life to combat the coronavirus outbreak, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday that construction sites could remain open. The assumption seemed to be that construction companies are in a position to follow all of the guidelines regarding physical distance.
Not everyone agrees.
Speaking to Hot Press, Barry Murphy (pictured), the Deputy General Secretary of plasterers' union, OPATSI, and head of the Cork branch, said he had visited a few building sites in Cork on Tuesday, and witnessed workers who find it "impossible" to avoid close contact with each other.
"They're dealing with heavy weights: they have to work in pairs all the time,” Barry Murphy told Hot Press. “If they walk away from the job, they won't be entitled to the top-up payment and probably won't get their jobs back."
The union is calling on the Government to close the sites and compensate the workers. Mr Murphy said workers had told him that they “want to go home".
"I understand that some of the contractors are trying their hardest [to maintain social distancing guidelines], but it's just not working in construction,” he explained.
“I saw a canteen yesterday with eight chairs around a normal-size kitchen table with sugar and their cups on top of it. The alternative is two or three sitting in a van, which breaches the guidelines as well."
The Construction Industry Federation (CIF) had exhorted the Government to allow building sites to remain open, promising to ensure that employers would maintain recommended health measures on sites.
The CIF has argued that building operations are "vital for the continuation of the economy" and that their closure might lead to economic devastation.
"We urge contractors and workers to work together to enforce social distancing regardless of any impacts on productivity or deadlines," CIF Director General, Tom Parlon said.
Alex Homits, a Trade Union activist and the General Secretary of Marxist organisation, the Connolly Youth Movement (CYM), accused the CIF of prioritising profit over builders' health.
"Why would [the CIF] ever bother with something like shutting down its sites amid a construction boom about to burst?
“This would defeat its insane profit margins for a period of time and force it to do something constructive. The sites, alongside the rest of non-essential services, should have been shut down two or three weeks ago."
Mr Homits said that he's seen that "it is completely impossible to socially distance in canteens and places where people are up close against each other.”
Mr Homits, who works with Trade Union Unite, said the organisation had an emergency meeting on Monday night and concluded that it was impossible to maintain physical distance on sites.
Unite has called for the immediate closure of sites and the implementation of a wage compensation scheme for builders. On its Twitter page, the trade union also posted a video of a construction site in Ireland, with a demonstration that hand-sanitiser dispensers on the site are not working.
On Tuesday, Facebook confirmed that it had suspended construction work at the Clonee data centre in Co Meath to ensure the health and safety of its workers.
Over 100,000 people are currently engaged in construction across Ireland.