Construction’s safety record never looks worse than in the living room of a bereaved family. Alan Ritchie knows – he’s been there too many times. The new general secretary of UCATT tells us about his plans to make employers and government listen.

The messenger
The messenger

Glaswegian Alan Ritchie, the recently elected head of construction union UCATT, is starting to adjust to life in the organisation’s London headquarters. But some changes aren’t straightforward, and the drinking water has caused particular problems. “The other day there was some kind of black thing sliding down the side of my tea,” he says, peering suspiciously into his glass. “It’s not like Scottish water, but I think I’m getting used to it.”

Tap water aside, Ritchie has settled in well to his new surroundings. The former UCATT regional secretary for Scotland has spent a large part of the three months since his appointment familiarising himself with the union’s internal working processes. That done, he’s now ready to step outside and meet the industry head on.

The most pressing problem is the industry’s safety record, the focus of the HSE’s health and safety summit next week. With 70 deaths last year, it is well documented that construction has the worst fatality rate of all industries in the UK. “Safety is very high up my agenda,” says Ritchie. “We can all talk about pay rises and working conditions, but if a worker leaves his house and gets killed on site, those things mean nothing.”

Ritchie’s job brings him into head-on contact with the shocking reality of the industry’s safety record and the justice system’s light punishments for offences. Part of his role is to visit the families of workers who have been killed on site. While there, he has to explain the iniquities of a system that fines employers an average of just £7000 for a site death.

The task has clearly had an impact on the softly spoken Ritchie and he doesn’t mince his words: “Imagine your father got killed because his firm put his life in jeopardy. And then that company was fined the paltry sum of £7000. I have to turn around to you and say ‘I know, it’s a disgrace’. It’s a very hard thing to do.”

Ritchie’s first-hand experiences have given him a crusading zeal that he hopes to put to good effect – especially as the HSE itself is hidebound by its status. “I don’t think the HSE wants to say anything controversial as it is an arm of government,” he says. “It wouldn’t comment on something radical like the proposed corporate manslaughter legislation.”

Ritchie, on the other hand, is only too happy to speak out, citing the current high-profile campaign launched by UCATT and the T&G to hold bosses to account in court for safety offences. “It’s in a union’s nature to be controversial,” he says. “In a Fascist state, we’d be among the first to go. It’s our role to push for things when nobody else will.” Bob Blackman, the T&G national secretary for construction, clearly does not doubt this commitment. “I’ve known Alan for a few years now. He’s extremely capable and a person of great integrity,” he says.

Another issue Ritchie wants to address is the exploitation of immigrant workers. He claims to know of a number of labour agencies that withhold the passports of foreign workers as a surety of accepting appalling conditions, while advertising to employers that they can save 30% on their wage bills. “It’s the slave trade reborn,” Ritchie asserts. “We are speaking to [construction minister] Nigel Griffiths and the DTI, as well as our union colleagues in eastern Europe to see how we can help the situation.”

In a Fascist state, the unions would be among the first to go. It’s our role to push for things when nobody else will

But he also argues that an underlying problem at the root of the industry’s safety and employment is the government’s attitude towards construction. “For many years, construction has been the Cinderella of all the industries when it comes to government priorities,” he says. “But it provides one of the highest percentages of GDP. The situation is ridiculous. The government needs to recognise the importance of the industry.”

Forcing this recognition is one of his main priorities as union leader, and the one area in which he feels his agenda is slightly different from that of his predecessor, George Brumwell. “George has been incredibly helpful since I took over the post, and I will be carrying on his line in a number of areas. But one thing I really want to do is raise the profile of UCATT and the industry as a whole. It’s high time we increased our influence with politicians.”

Ritchie can take heart, therefore, that his appointment has certainly not gone unnoticed in Whitehall and Downing Street. He has already met Gordon Brown and the DTI, and received a personal acknowledgment from Tony Blair. “I received a congratulatory letter from Tony on my election,” Ritchie says, smiling. “So they seem receptive to me.”

Another regular bugbear of the construction union is bogus self-employment. Aside from tax dodging, this allows workers to take up jobs without providing proof of their skills and safety training. Ritchie, an old-school socialist who worked in the Upper Clyde shipyard before becoming a full-time union official, is in no doubt over where the problem started.

“Self-employment came through in the 1970s to deal with the black economy, but under Thatcher’s entrepreneurialism, the problem mushroomed. Now the industry can’t defend the position it’s in. Even on major projects there are sometimes no directly employed workers, as bogus self-employment filters in through the subcontracting chain.”

As with most of his aims, convincing the industry to confront this issue will require some careful PR. He has to keep reminding the union’s members that bogus self-employment is damaging in the long term, despite the short-term appeal of higher take-home pay.

He recalls one particular incident while he was regional secretary in Scotland. “I had a lad chase after me,” he says, faintly amused. “He demanded to know why I was forcing him to pay a full National Insurance contribution. You wouldn’t believe it, would you?”

Sadly, Ritchie may soon find that some things aren’t so different south of the border.

Ritchie on ...

Regional difference “If you were Scottish, I’d tell you I’ve seen dodgy scaffolding hanging like a pun of mince. But you’re not, so I’m going to have to explain myself.”

Co-operation “I am Alan Ritchie. But I do not have a monopoly on brains.”

Football “I support St Mirren, but I hardly get to go and see them now. My boy’s into Barcelona. I’m trying to coax him out of it.”

Music “People think Scots are only into kilts and heather, but I have very varied taste. I like songs with meaning, like Bob Dylan’s.”

Films “I’m terrible with movies. I never know if I’ve seen them before.”