We report on how baa is making sure all its construction staff live to see the end of the job
When news broke of Laing O'Rourke's Terminal 5 pay deal in January 2003, it stirred up a toxic mixture of offended snobbery and open envy in the heartland of middle England. Newspaper headlines screamed that mere builders were to earn up to £55,000 a year and the Daily Mail speculated that this would attract hordes of rapacious immigrants from undesirable countries. The reaction in the industry was hardly less favourable, with electricians blowing a fuse and rival contractors attacking the deal as "crazy".

For BAA, this agreement is not crazy, nor is it paternalistic philanthropy. It is an acknowledgement of facts as they stand. The operator needs 4000 skilled and committed workers to build its terminal at a time when skilled and committed workers are in short supply. And although the pay level grabbed the headlines, it was only part of the benefits package – having tempted workers to the site, BAA has to keep them there. So, in addition to pay, the agreement provides for first-class working conditions and welfare facilities.

Sharon Doherty, BAA's organisational effectiveness director, sums up what's in it for the client: "It has been our intention to provide the best facilities in terms of staff welfare that was achievable for the T5 site to attract and retain a quality workforce," she says. "The key to increased productivity is having a happy and stable workforce and there is a business advantage for BAA in achieving this."

Doherty points out that the industrial relations package was a contributory factor in achieving the project's recent successes. "Without Laing O'Rourke's continuing support and progress, the project wouldn't have been on time and budget and wouldn't have reached the milestones that it currently has." But BAA and Laing O'Rourke are still working tirelessly to attract workers to meet the labour needs of T5. The firms have agreed to introduce measures such as coach services from places such as Essex and Kent for the labour force to travel to site, and workers have also been allowed discount flights so they can jet in from other parts of the UK.

If it’s not safe we don’t do it. That’s how we work now. That’s what’s different

Richard Ellis, piling foreman

George Brumwell, general secretary of UCATT, was at the centre of the initial deal for the building sector, and he says it has changed the industry. "At a stroke when news broke of the pay deal, the industry's recruitment problems eased. The deal set a new industry standard in terms of welfare and industrial relations."

Having agreed a deal with general construction workers, which covered the civil engineering phase of the project, BAA then had to agree another with the M&E sector for the fit-out. Paul Corby, Amicus' national construction officer, who worked to implement the deal with BAA, says that he has never known a client to work so hard to provide the basic framework for a successful project. "No client has given such a high degree of support for a commitment to a directly employed workforce," he says. The M&E engineers negotiated a similar deal to the builders.

Doherty says it is too early to measure the success of the M&E sector's productivity, as the M&E presence is just starting to build up on the site, but she says the newly signed agreement makes for stable industrial relations. "Historically, the M&E sector's workforce has been militant in its industrial relations activity, but through a partnership with Paul Corby from Amicus we have been able to achieve a deal."

A tectonic shift in industrial relations is the result of more than just money; it is about respect for people, and that means the health and safety of workers. Brumwell says that health and safety and training on projects are paramount. And in his role as Construction Skills Certification Scheme chairman, he is eager that the whole of the T5 project is certified to the scheme.

It’s getting the lads to be safe for themselves, not because it’s Policy

Declan Wilson, concreter

A recent survey on the T5 project revealed that, so far, 450 Laing O'Rourke employees are signed up to CSCS competence, with a further 150 registering each month. Furthermore, the survey found that out of the 3000 T5 workers currently on site, 73% agreed or agreed strongly that T5 was a safer site than any other they have worked on previously.

Mike Evans, T5's health and safety manager, says standards on T5 should be much better than in the general industry because of the sheer scale of the project. "If T5 operated at average industry safety standards then we would probably have two workers dead by now and more than 600 injured," he says.

A lot of older blokes are finding the safety culture hard to adjust to

Mark Willson, joiner

The UK construction industry operates with about 12 reportable accidents per million site hours, and so far on T5 there has been five per million. "The aim is to get to one," says Evans.

BAA's "One in a million campaign" has been running for several years and has now been followed by an initiative called the "Injury and Incident-free Programme", which is BAA's latest safety campaign for T5. This demands that there are no safety-related incidents on site.

As well as the prevention of accidents, health and safety is about the wellbeing of the workforce. Evans says new T5 workers must fill in a medical questionnaire and that the 30% of workers who work in safety critical positions, such a crane drivers, have to undergo a full medical check at the on-site occupational health centre.

The site's health screening facility has so far revealed that about one-third of the workforce who operate in safety-critical positions have got problems with such ailments as diabetes, high and low blood pressure and poor eyesight. "The aim is not to exclude people but to enable people to return to work healthier," says Evans.

Feeding the four thousand

Noon, and the canteen at compound D is doing a steady trade in lasagne and burgers. The canteen is huge, with space for several hundred workers at one sitting in smoking and non-smoking sections. It looks clean, hygienic and efficient – were it not for the staff in hard hats, bright yellow high-vis coats and vests, the room could easily have been mistaken for an office canteen. Everywhere, heads are buried in copies of The Sun and The Star.

This is one of the 16 “fixed” canteens on the site keeping the workforce fed and watered; two mobile canteens service the teams working in more remote parts. In total, the canteens handle 22,000 transactions a week – which is a lot of meals, drinks and snacks. The operation is run by Eurest, the staff-feeding arm of the Compass Group, the international catering outfit that owns, among others, Harry Ramsden’s, Little Chef and the UK Burger King franchise.

Meal times reflect the operation of the site: tea and toast is served from 6am until 7am and breakfast proper is at 10am to coincide with operatives’ 30-minute mid-morning break. “This is the busiest time of the day for us,” says Mark Lawrence, executive general manager at Eurest. Lunch is served from noon until 2pm.

Nouvelle cuisine this ain’t: plates are heaped with energy-sustaining foods to fuel the workers make it to the end of their shift. “At the moment, because of the heavy labouring work on site, we’re focusing on foods high in carbohydrates,” says Lawrence. The portions are enormous:

£3.25 will buy you a “substantial” main course, such as lasagne and chips, plus a pudding and a drink. “We have to strike a balance between price, quantity and quality,” Lawrence says. However, the balance of the menu will change over time. As the project progresses and manual labouring gives way to specialist fit-out teams and finishing trades, so the carbohydrate content of the meals will decline.

Lawrence has tried some more adventurous fare, such as curries, but his monthly customer survey highlighted the folly of this: hard labour after a curry is not a pleasant experience.

More than money

T5 has delivered a seismic shift in the culture of industrial relations.The scale of the project required innovative thinking on the civil engineering side, but also in regard to the industrial relations structure that would cover more than 3500 workers.

This was only achievable through the endeavours of a progressive and visionary client, a willing contractor, and of course the trade unions – UCATT, the T&G and the GMB. All parties agreed that the project should be delivered on cost, on time and to quality. It is not often in industry, let alone the construction industry, that negotiations commence with a blank sheet of paper and trade unions are asked to list their priorities.

It was important for UCATT to achieve agreement on a directly employed workforce, as all other issues would flow from this. The contractor gets a better chance to complete the project on time and to budget, and the workforce enjoys employment rights often denied to those forced to work under the self-employed tag.

All the other UCATT boxes were ticked off one by one: a modern and innovative pay structure, pensions, on-site assessment and training, an occupational health scheme, and, in anticipation of the working time directive, a maximum working week of 48 hours. The final agreement was based on the working rule agreement for the industry, and wages increased in line with that agreement.

The industrial relations structure included a recognition agreement, a statement from the contractor encouraging trade union membership, with arrangements for union subs to be deducted from wages, and, importantly, facilities for full-time trade union officials and senior stewards.

A shop stewards network to represent all trades was set up with a clear procedure for outlining grievances to management. This was the mechanism to release the pressures that so often come to the fore on site. And pressures do arise – little surprise when you take into the account the sheer size of the job and number of workers involved. But there has been a change in culture, and despite the nature of potential dispute, be it weekend leave, lodge money or travel payments, resolution has been achieved through the processes agreed.

The T5 deal is a blue-chip agreement that has set the benchmark for all major projects. It is changing the face of the UK construction industry from grind to genuine partnership.

More than a bonus

No client has ever worked harder to provide the basic framework for a successful project. And no client has given such a high degree of support for a directly employed workforce or rejected so totally the corrupt mechanisms of bogus self-employment.

BAA consulted the unions for our views on key employment issues at T5 for more than two years before the first sod was dug.

I represented Amicus’ views for the M&E sector and the structural and steel works.

Amicus has a clear commitment to working to achieve direct employment through the application of our national agreements. We did not want a one-off T5 deal based purely on price work or bonus targets. We believed a successful project depended on more than workers chasing bonus targets to earn their rewards.

The MPA is an integral part of all the M&E national agreements and therefore keeps within the proven and understood working arrangements. It is about applying a civilised working environment based on respect for people on the project as well as enhancing earnings.