Sometime ago, I wrote a column saying I did not believe in the £55,000 being offered to skilled workers on Laing O'Rourke's part of the Terminal 5 contract. So, my first resolution is to find out the name of any carpenter or plasterer who has earned that amount last year. If I'm wrong and there are such people, then it will prove money does not buy you happiness: industrial unrest simmered at T5 through 2003. So let's cut the hype and see the wage slip of anyone who has won the big banana. Over to you, Building.
My second resolution is to do more gambling.
Dennis Lenard, the new chief executive of Constructing Excellence, was reported before Christmas as saying that within the next two years, the industry would recruit and retain 300,000 qualified people and change its negative image (12 December, page 15). Now, it takes at least two years to produce trained craftspeople so only the people already in the pipeline will be available in two years' time. To put it another way, Mr Lenard's 300,000 fully trained operatives will be a neat trick if he can pull it off.
As for his second objective, I note that it was the image of the industry that was to be changed, not the way it actually operated. This at least has the merit of being possible – Andy Warhol was right when he said that image was everything and reality was nothing. In the real world, the image that people have of the small and medium-sized builder is, in general, not too far from reality. I believe that Mr Lenard is Australian and I always thought that they were a sporting people. If he would care to have a small wager on improving the image of the industry in some objective and quantifiable way in two years, I would like to take that bet …
I also wrote a column last year attacking the massive use of foreign labour, much of it illegal, on building sites. But the editor of Building disagrees. He wrote an editorial on 28 November that argued that foreign labour was needed to "ameliorate the skills shortages hampering PFI projects". The use of CSCS cards apparently makes all the difference to whether or not it's a good idea to employ foreign labour – a point I'll come back to. Over the past year I have been on a number of sites in London where the foremen have been driven to distraction by their inability to communicate with their non-English-speaking workforce. There is no real shortage of labour in the general population, just a shortage of people willing to work for the wages the industry is willing to pay. Foreign labour is compliant labour.
James Dyson, that great British inventor, now has his vacuum cleaners made in the Far East. British Telecom and several British banks have their call centres in India. Tesco would like to have its tin sheds made in the Far East and distributed by magic carpet, but as it cannot do that yet, it has to bring the cheap labour to the tin sheds. How is it possible to ask people to train for the industry when they will be competing with a constant supply of imported labour?
Non-English-speaking workers on site make a mockery of safety. A letter published in Building on 9 January said: "As far as safety is concerned, the initial induction at the site by the gang leader should be adequate." If we can find foremen who speak a few dozen languages, this might be true. But really, this is an example of the cavalier attitude that kills so many building workers.
A company I had never heard of said I had worked for them and that I was fully trained. I can now prove I am an accredited surveyor
As for CSCS cards, I have a perfectly legitimate one, number 24095. Last year I decided to find out how hard it is to obtain one on the black market. An employment agency, that will remain nameless, had no difficulty in getting one for me. A company I had never heard of said I had worked for them for years and that I was fully trained and competent. I now have a CSCS card that shows I am an accredited site surveyor, which is not true. If firms tendering for government contracts are forced to show they have a workforce with CSCS cards they will just accredit as many as they need, provided the individuals can pass the safety exam. My third new year's resolution is to throw away my phoney CSCS card.
Early last year there was a lot of talk about computer programmers retraining as bricklayers to work on T5.
I argued that it was extremely unlikely that any middle-class professionals would retrain in construction simply because they are hard, physical, dirty jobs. But there are urban myths that refuse to go away, like the bricklayer who earns more than the company director and the beggar who drives to work in a Rolls Royce. In his column on 12 December, Gus Alexander included the old chestnut about the psychiatrist who earns less than his plumber. This would be true only if the psychiatrist were unemployed.
So my final resolution is to find any computer programmers who have become bricklayers, and a psychiatrist who earns less than a plumber.
John Smith is a clerk of works and a former site worker.