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Pay cut sparks electricians’ protest in Manchester

Andy Bowman on how electricians from across the North West are fighting a co-ordinated attack on their pay and conditions
7 November 2011

Electricians from across the North West this week again took part in the latest nationally coordinated protests against plans by employers to reduce pay and worsen working conditions. For the second week in a row the building site for the new Carrington Paper Mill, operated by the construction firm Balfour Beatty, was picketed by around 50 workers, with many of those employed on site choosing to turn away rather than cross the picket line. Similar actions have taken place in Newcastle, Glasgow and London over the past fortnight.

The protests began following the announcement in May by Balfour Beatty and another seven of the UK’s 14 major electrical contractors (Crown House, NG Baileys, T. Clarkes, MJN Colston, Gratte Brothers, Shepherds Engineering, Matthew Hall) that they would impose new contracts upon their electricians, and in doing so scrapping the Joint Industry Board (JIB) agreement which has for the past 40 years been the basis for setting pay and working conditions. The firms have drawn up a replacement, the Building and Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA), and issued notice to employees in August that their current contracts will be terminated on December 7, leaving them with the option of taking up the new contracts or accepting unemployment.

According to Unite, which represents UK electricians, BESNA will have a number of negative effects on the trade. Contractors will be able to continually raise and lower hourly pay according to specific tasks workers undertake at any point in time, rather than maintaining a standard wage for skilled work. For some electricians this will entail a lowering of the hourly rate from £16.25 to £10 – a 35 per cent pay cut.

Unite say that both travel and overtime pay will be cut and made payable only at the employer’s discretion, the ability to claim for unfair dismissal will be reduced, while employers will simultaneously be enabled to make redundancies while agency temp workers are still engaged on projects. As one electrician analysing the agreement put it: “People are going to be losing a lot. Every single term in BESNA gives all the power to the employer. They get final say on everything.”

The JIB agreement has been in place for over 40 years, and part of the reason for its creation was the avoidance of labour unrest. The prospect of its removal is now fuelling some of the most potent labour militancy of recent years.

Protests by rank and file union members have shut down building sites across the country. In September a group of around 1,500 electricians workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire walked out to join demonstrating electricians and Unite officials, while sites in London have been blockaded and occupied by workers several times in recent weeks.

“We’ve got to have mass walkouts, whether it’s official or not, it’s our very futures at stake,” explained Steve Acheson, Branch secretary for Unite from Manchester.

He said in view of the fast-approaching December deadline, electricians “aren’t prepared to wait for the union to decide what they’re going to do. Time is not permitting. The rank and file are saying we haven’t got enough time and they’re taking action.”

Acheson, himself a victim of Balfour Beatty’s past union blacklisting activity, accused building firms of lacking commitment to negotiations with their workforces.

“They’re just moving the goalposts so they can get the rate down by £3. This is a 43 year agreement they’re walking away from. The root cause of everything is insatiable greed for greater profit.

“The only language these companies seem to understand is industrial action. There’s no dialogue, they don’t want dialogue.”

One of the original eight companies proposing to scrap the JIB, MJN Colston, has already backed down in response to the protests, and the workers are confident that others can be forced into the same decision.

Balfour Beatty, a firm with a recent history of illegal union blacklisting, is viewed as the driving force behind BESNA and as such is being targeted by Unite for the first wave of official strike action. The decision to ballot the 1,000 Unite members employed by Balfour Beatty was announced on October 18. While Balfour Beatty have claimed that the scrapping of the JIB is a response to competitive pressures, Unite point out that the companies orders have risen 6 per cent this year, with £15.5bn worth of projects underway since last year, yielding pre-tax profits of £50.5m. Ian Tyler, the company’s chief executive, received a total pay package of £979,994.

Unite national officer, Bernard McAulay said: “We believe Balfour Beatty is the main aggressor among a group of companies trying to bully their workers into signing away their livelihoods so Unite is balloting them first. We have warned them repeatedly that their greed will bring mayhem to an industry desperately trying to steer a path through the recession, but they refuse to listen.

“The failure of the senior management at Balfour Beatty to withdraw the threats of dismissal has left Unite with no choice than to prepare for an industrial action ballot with Balfour Beatty, the ring-leader of these break-away firms.

“This is a vastly profitable company. It has no need whatsoever to rob its employees in order to satisfy its shareholders. Perhaps the threat of strike action will bring Balfour Beatty to its senses and back to the negotiating table.”

In Manchester, as well as the Carrington Paper Mill construction site run by Balfour Beatty, the other major target of protest has been the Town Hall refurbishment project. The contractor chosen for the project, NG Bailey, is one of the seven firms still seeking to implement BESNA. July’s Manchester People, the council’s news publication, quoted deputy leader Sue Murphy praising the project for its role in creating jobs and apprenticeships for local youngsters, saying as well as “preserving these heritage buildings for the future and ensuring they can deliver improved services in the years ahead, we are also helping give these people a promising future”.

This future now looks decidedly less promising for those hired by NG Bailey, which will, under the terms of BESNA, also no longer be offering specialist electricians’ apprenticeships.

Balfour Beatty were contacted for comment and supplied the following statement:

“Balfour Beatty Engineering Services (BBES) remain committed to the HVCA and the introduction of the Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA) which will introduce one consistent set of terms and conditions for electrical, mechanical and plumbing operatives who are currently employed under a number of existing industry agreements.

“The UK construction industry is under pressure to increase efficiency, to improve productivity and to minimise costs. We are in the process of consulting with our workforce on the proposed introduction of the BESNA, this process includes providing the opportunity for our employees to ask questions to fully understand the detail and benefits of a single agreement for BBES and the industry as a whole.

“We believe that by implementing the new agreement we will create a more modern structure, better able to respond to the market place and to safeguard employment, without eroding the terms and conditions of our employees. No employee will have their wages cut, electricians will earn the same rate under the BESNA and mechanical and plumbing operatives will see an increase in their hourly rate to create a level playing field.”

A report on Manchester City Council’s reaction to the protests against NG Bailey will follow in the coming weeks.

This piece originally appeared on the Manchester Mule site.


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birmingham electrician 7 November 2011, 18.48

Great article, well done

Anonymous 7 November 2011, 19.02

When we were first issued with our new contracts, we were confused: why change agreements that had been in place for 40 years?

Management tried their hardest to convince us it is a good thing. They told us it was a better contract, that we would benefit as employees and they are employers.

They were half right. They certainly benefit from it. We don’t.

What made us really angry was when we compared the existing and new agreements: the new agreement is about putting every single term in the employers’ favour and wording it so loosely that it can be interpreted in many different ways, none of which benefit us.

We were told if we didn’t sign we might lose our jobs so we started talking to our union, Unite, and came to the conclusion the only way forward was to walk off jobs and hold protests.

They are still saying sign or be sacked. We have no other option. It’s not just our jobs and futures on the line – it’s also the young people who come out of college wanting to be an electrician or a plumber and won’t be able to because these rogue employers are trying to wipe out such professions.

Things all started a little over two months ago when eight of the 14 major UK contractors (Balfour Beatty, Crown House, NG Baileys, T. Clarkes, MJN Colston, Gratte Brothers, Shepherds Engineering, Matthew Hall) informed their workforce of the intention to withdraw from the long-standing National Working Agreements, drawing up a new contract of employment called the Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA).

As far as I can tell, the main reason for the BESNA is to save money on labour costs as this is the only expense that companies can control. They see 75% of the work currently undertaken by their highly trained employees as semi-skilled and they do not like the fact that they have to pay the same hourly rate for every task.

The new contract makes it flexible for the contractors to raise and lower employees’ pay, depending on which tasks they have been assigned. In worse case scenarios this can result in an hourly wage cut of 35%.

Here’s a few of the main points in the contract that particularly concern myself and my colleagues:

grading of tradesmen – currently carried out by the bodies mentioned above, the new contract puts all grading in the hands of the employer so they can raise and lower your hourly rate at any time
travel pay – will be dramatically cut and will also be paid at the employer’s discretion
overtime rates – weekend overtime rates have been dramatically cut and even receiving them is up the employer’s discretion.
merging of electrical and mechanical trades – they propose to remove electricians and plumbers from the equation totally, replacing them with building services engineers (whatever that is!)
 unfair dismissal – we’re currently able to claim unfair dismissal from our first day. That term has been removed.
redundancy rules – have been changed. Currently, employers are not allowed to make redundancies whilst they have agency/temporary workers engaged on their projects. This term has been removed, so no protection is given at all for employees
apprenticeships – there will be no more electrical and plumbing apprenticeships offered by these companies as they want to build a work force of multi-skilled workers, trained in a little bit of everything but specialising in nothing.
I could go on and on: the old agreement is more than 250 pages long. BESNA is only 48 pages, which in itself is a sign that people are going to be losing a lot. Every single term in BESNA gives all the power to the employer. They get final say on everything. Nothing is set in stone.

And that is why we’re angry, and why we’ll keep fighting until we win this campaign.

Emma S Condon 8 November 2011, 09.09

I think they should give what they deserve and all. In order to make society a little bit better and they also really need this.

Mark the spark 5 December 2011, 14.46

Employers will own and run the BESNA skill card and grading structure, undermining the existing respected and independent procedures of the Joint Industry Boards. Those behind BESNA are the same firms found responsible for the illegal blacklisting of workers and trade unionists. Would you trust these people to grade you and share your information?

Casualised agency labour will replace directly employed workers, as under BESNA there will be no insistence on direct labour as per the existing agreements.

Employers have recently stated that BESNA contains no reference to short-time working or lay off, however paragraph 5.4 (a) makes a clear reference to this provision insofar as it will impact on pay.

Despite what the bosses say, BESNA paragraphs 6.4 and 6.5 clearly allow for the rest and meal breaks to be combined at the ‘discretion’ of the Employer. We all know what that means – removal of the paid 15 minute morning rest break.

Unlike the JIB, BESNA fails to define the working day as 7.5 hours and clearly states in paragraph 6.3 that “the length of the working day and the hours of attendance shall be determined by the Employer”, this undermines your defined working week and the chance for overtime payments and an afternoon break.

BESNA undermines the existing JIBs’ travel allowances, and gives the Employer ‘absolute discretion’ to determine what constitutes the ‘shop’ and reimburse the cheapest possible fare (paragraph 7.3), avoiding existing travel cost allowances without even guaranteeing a standard second class rail fare.

The Employers see your travel time and accommodation allowances as a prohibitive cost to their business, their intention is that the cost of your time, mileage and fuel to get to and from jobs over 25 miles will be out of your own pocket.

Employers will impose BELL to BELL working which means clocking facilities will be located as close to where you work as practicable instead of at the site offices. This means any time you spend walking to and from your work area will not be paid and will result in your working day being extended by up to 1.5 hours without pay.

The BESNA proposals that workers could have to undergo medical examination will have potential sinister implications. The JIB combined benefits scheme including ECIBA and BUPA benefits, does not discriminate against anyone joining, regardless of their medical history or state of health. Furthermore, the life insurance element is for ‘death by any cause’. In contrast BESNA looks like it will have the ability to pick and choose who and what they cover.

keith subby 6 December 2011, 21.50

Time for every spark whether self employed or card labour to stand together in the face of this outrageous Victorian style “BESNA” agreement. Having been in the self employed sector (not by choice) for several years myself and many like me have slowly but surely had our wages & conditions eroded beyond belief. No holiday pay (in your pay rate that never increases) cost to you £2,000 approx. Payroll company to get your wages £1,000+ per year. Public liability £80+ per year depending. All courses needed to secure different types of contract time & cost down to you. Accountancy fees £500+. More often than not required to provide own plant £?. So what ever our day rate you can take at least £6,000 a year off. No thats not low enough said greedy Balfour Beatty & the other six parasites lets invent the “BESNA”. Once we have our card labour on 35% less, just imagine how cheap we can get our have absolutely no employment rights agency labour for. We are a skilled workforce and by fighting this outrageous attack on our present employment terms & conditions will remain so.

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