Every day we pass a building site. The work being carried out can seem rather mundane: who has not done some painting, plastering or odd jobs while doing DIY? And yet work in the building industry is shrouded in mystery. The coordination of multiple human activities gives rise to impressive structures. Under what conditions?

Work in the construction sector is affected by a paradoxical invisibility. Both familiar due to its close proximity and yet full of mystery for all those who have never experienced life on a building site, it combines age-old skills and know-how with ultra-modern technical devices. It is expressed in a richly layered language that conveys the emotions of the body, tames the dangers and masters the techniques with metaphors drawn from everyday life. It remains, however, out of sight. Although many building sites are in public places, they are hidden from view and from control. Above all else, construction employers value absolute discretion about the working and employment conditions that allow them to make their profits. The police tend to turn a blind eye when workers are exposed on building sites to fatal risks because corners have been cut on preventive measures.

In the European Union, over 14 million workers are actively involved in construction. There are over 3 million construction companies, which are traditionally divided into three groups: construction of buildings, public works and specialised construction activities. Large companies dominate the public works sector: they employ 40% of the workers, compared to 7% for specialised activities.

Over 90% of construction workers are men. Added to this gender segregation is a significant ethnic division of labour. Throughout Europe, the percentage of migrant workers in construction is higher than in the workforce as a whole. But this is not just about migrant workers. Ethnic lines do not stop at a worker’s nationality or country of birth. They are just as much about the generations resulting from previous waves of migration, and even minorities or ethnic groups from different European countries. As a result, "being a Malian" on a building site in France does not necessarily

mean that you were born in Mali or even that you are the son of a Malian. The division of labour is "racialised", with work being given to groups supposedly better suited to a particular trade. From one country to the next, the stereotypes can vary enormously: the "Malians" on a French building site can be "Punjabis" on an English site, "Ecuadorians" in Madrid or "Poles" in Berlin.

Organisation of work

The organisation of work in construction differs hugely from industrial activities. The extreme variability of tasks has made it impossible to precisely define work activities. Attempts to Taylorise construction have generally been slow in coming and limited to specific segments such as the use of prefabricated elements to cheaply construct public buildings (schools in working-class districts, in particular) or social housing. Towards the end of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s, the same trend developed in Europe on both sides of the Iron Curtain: the social neighbourhoods of the West were built using very similar methods to the housing built during the Khrushchev era in the East.

It has not been possible to intensify the work through the production process by using assembly lines or rates set by machines. This is, in fact, one of the attractions of the building trades: workers have real autonomy over their work, and the control of individual productivity remains approximate.

The exploitation of workers is based as much on the employment structure as on employer control of the organisation of work. This explains two main characteristics of the sector. Subcontracting chains and heavy reliance on temporary work result in jobs being extremely insecure. This is the main lever used to increase productivity. It is presented as a commercial requirement in order to meet the deadlines set by clients. The hidden face of this labour mobilisation is the huge and varying profits. In 2012, according to Eurostat statistics, the sector’s turnover rose to over 1 500 billion euros, with an added value corresponding to around one-third of that sum. Wages and other staff costs accounted for only around 330 billion euros. However, the significant added value is in no way distributed equally among all the businesses in the sector. Most of the small and medium-sized enterprises have limited profit margins. They are under constant pressure from a competitive market that forces them to accept work with uncertain profitability, even if this means using subcontracting chains and skimping on safety expenditure. The profits are concentrated in the companies that dominate the sector, which are mainly involved in public procurement and major construction projects.

The other characteristic of the organisation of work is its "racialisation". Far from being a folkloric or anachronistic phenomenon, it goes to the very heart of the relationships between capital and work in construction. We have all become dizzy looking at the famous photos by Lewis Wickes Hine showing workers sitting on a steel beam overhanging New York during construction of the Empire State Building in 1930. Many are unaware, however, that the construction of numerous skyscrapers in New York between 1930 and 1970 relied on the recruitment of Mohawks (often referred to as Mohicans) from the Indian reservations of Quebec and the United States of America. Their wages were lower than those of other workers. It was said that they did not suffer from vertigo, which enabled them to work at height without needing safety harnesses.

Racialisation plays a dual role. The ethnic fragmentation of the workforce serves to counteract forms of collective resistance. In this respect, large building sites all seem to be inspired by the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Its construction was meant to open the door to heaven for a united humanity who spoke a single language. To counteract this plan, the divine authority decided to "confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech". Racism is a way of putting constant pressure on groups of workers. Among workers, it also serves as an outlet for the multiple tensions associated with both the fear of dangerous work and the anxiety of job insecurity. Furthermore, the ethnic division of labour also justifies low wages. Important professional skills are "in the blood". They are naturalised as if they automatically stemmed from belonging to a particular ethnic group. Physical strength, accuracy of work, stamina for repetitive work and the capacity to properly prepare for difficult work are supposedly ethnic characteristics. The paradox in this naturalisation is that it constantly varies: the role of the "Portuguese" in construction in France has shifted in under half a century from manual work to management work.

Job insecurity

The construction sector is very sensitive to the economic situation. Both private demand and public work tend to drastically reduce during crisis periods. In certain European countries, the drop in construction employment has been catastrophic. At the end of 2015 in Spain, the volume of jobs was only 65% of what it had been in 2010, due to the combined effect of the general crisis and the bursting of the property bubble. The consequences of this situation are aggravated by the employment structure: heavy reliance on temporary work, use of undocumented workers and self-employed workers, and fragmentation of subcontracting through the large number of micro-businesses that can be quickly shut down. These are all factors that increase the job insecurity of construction workers.

Job insecurity also has consequences in terms of workplace accidents. Prolonged periods of unemployment result in a loss of understanding of working conditions. They interrupt the informal passing on of safety know-how between workers, and the fear of losing your job is an important factor in risk-taking.

Workplace accidents and occupational diseases

Construction has the highest frequency rate of fatal workplace accidents. More than one fatal accident in five occurs in construction. In the European Union, there were on average 2.44 fatal accidents per 100 000 workers in 2012. The risk is 10 times higher in the construction sector, which appears to be the most exposed of all the sectors.

For non-fatal accidents, the risk level also appears to be high, but less markedly so. However, it is difficult to determine what is actually real (a high frequency rate of non-fatal accidents in other sectors) and what is due to the under-declaration of accidents. This phenomenon is widespread in construction due to the reliance on undeclared work, pressure put on temporary workers and the high percentage of micro-businesses. There are numerous safety certification systems that require the frequency rate of workplace accidents to be reduced in order to obtain a certificate. However, these have the perverse effect of the under-declaration of accidents, due to fear that failure to obtain the safety certificate will rule the business out of invitations to tender.

Accidents are just the tip of the iceberg. The medium-and long-term effects are much more worrying. They result from a combination of harmful exposures: carrying of heavy loads, vibrations, awkward working positions, standing work, bad weather and chemical risks.

In recent years, the high number of cancers caused by occupational exposures in construction has been highlighted in numerous studies. Construction materials, substances and processes are mainly chosen on the basis of cost, ease of use and client demands, without the risks being systematically assessed. In this respect, the lessons of asbestos still tragically apply. Construction involves a cocktail of exposures to carcinogens that have long been known about, with new products being regularly added that have not been assessed, particularly nanomaterials.

An epidemiological study published in 2015 highlighted the increased risk of lung cancer among bricklayers. This trade exposes workers to a cocktail of carcinogens. A major role is played by the crystalline silica that is found in sand, clay and stone, and that is released in large quantities when materials such as ceramics are cut. The painting profession has been identified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as posing increased risks of respiratory and urinary tract cancers as well as a risk of leukaemia for the children of women employed in this profession.

The particular conditions of use contribute to this situation. Building sites are not industrial establishments where it is possible to organise production so that exposures are avoided (using vacuum production systems) or reduced to very low levels. On a building site, numerous activities take place at the same time without being physically isolated from each other. Mixing concrete, welding, painting, using particle boards coated with harmful substances, cutting materials that release crystalline silica and many other activities expose workers to risks, and not only those workers directly involved, but also those in the vicinity. The millions of tonnes of asbestos used in Europe throughout the 20th century continue to pose a huge risk in renovation and demolition (read the article on p. 31). Work in the open air also results in exposure to solar radiation, which significantly increases the risk of skin cancers.

Prevention requirements

Construction has been regarded as a priority sector for prevention activities for more than a century. But the results have been rather limited. Whether looking at accidents, cancers or many other pathologies, the official prevention measures are often a sham. To a large extent, this stems from a contradictory command. On the one hand, there is no lack of notices and instructions obsessively confirming that safety is the number one priority. As Nicolas Jounin puts it, "workers, when faced with the impossibility of achieving the required production rate at the same time as safety, must surreptitiously deal with this contradiction by neglecting one or the other. When they challenge the contradictory commands that they are given, they come up against the power of the management and then have to try and overcome the division of labour caused by the formal fragmentation implemented by employers".

The organisation of work is rarely regarded as an essential variable for prevention. The choice of substances and manufacturing processes only rarely involves an assessment of the risks that have delayed consequences. I recall the astonishment of a group of construction workers in French-speaking Switzerland when, in order to prevent cancer, the insurance body for their branch supplied them with fresh fruit once a week. They would have preferred collective prevention against the numerous carcinogens to which they were regularly exposed.

On large building sites, there are often boards proudly stating: "We have gone 25 days without an accident. Safety is our priority". The message here is twofold. Seemingly, it is simply a statement written in the indicative and in the past: so many days without an accident. But, in reality, it is also a command: "Please don’t declare any minor accidents". A whole range of pretexts is used: virility (men don’t declare trivial incidents; a small scar is a professional tattoo); competition (if our company declares too many accidents, it will lose access to certain contracts); costs linked to increased insurance premiums (we prefer to slip you an envelope).

Official prevention measures are an instrument for discipline. This is based on the idea that superiors understand the work better than workers and have the right to impose rules. The experience of workers goes against this claim. Safety can only be ensured in their real work through a series of informal practices, which are often concealed, that allow workers to regain control over their working conditions.

The disciplinary concept of prevention was expressed with particular brutality in Great Britain. Around 40 companies in the construction sector produced a secret file containing the names of over 3 200 workers who had criticised health and safety issues. The companies involved included global groups such as Robert McAlpine, Vinci and Skanska, which happily claim that they are the best at "workplace safety". The aim was to keep these workers away from building sites in order to reduce conflict about workplace health and safety.

Unsustainable conditions

Although, across Europe, governments are rethinking retirement ages and early retirement schemes, working conditions in the construction industry are not compatible with most workers continuing beyond the age of 60. To the question: "Will you be able to do the same work when you’re 60?", only 30% of manual workers in construction aged 45 to 49 answered yes. This was the lowest percentage among all the professional groups in the European survey on working conditions. Only around 20% of manual workers in construction are aged 50 or over. For more than half of them, their work is adversely affecting their health. The most common complaints are back pain (three out of four workers aged 50 or over), excessive work rates (over 60% of complaints) and awkward working positions (nearly 60%).

While buildings are designed to last, the conditions under which they are constructed prevent the workers concerned from keeping going throughout their professional life. A survey conducted in Geneva, covering the final third of the 20th century, revealed that 15% of disabled persons were men aged 45 to 65. The highest percentage (40%) was observed among construction workers. Yet among architects, engineers and technicians – in other words, in the category of those responsible for organising building sites – this percentage was only 3.9%. Growing social and health inequalities in our societies suggest that this huge disparity has hardly changed•.

Table of contents

Working conditions in construction: a paradoxical invisibility