Construction operatives working for the Prison Service have threatened to go on strike if their pay demands are not met, writes Sarah Richardson.

Unions have warned that the 7000 workers on maintenance contracts will ballot over strike action if the service refuses to raise pay levels significantly. Negotiations are continuing, but the service is not expected to offer a rise above inflation.

Jim Kennedy, the national political officer at UCATT, said: “The prison service has not yet made a formal offer on pay, but we suspect it will come back with an offer of about 2% to 2.5%, which is below inflation. When any offer arrives, we will give it due consideration, but an offer below the retail prices index will obviously not meet our aspirations. In that case, we would consider all options up to and including balloting for strikes.”

Tradesmen, including carpenters, plumbers and painters, are angry that they receive much less money than their private sector counterparts, despite working in dangerous conditions.

Kennedy said the Prison Service was storing up problems by not acting to prevent its workforce being lured away by the private sector. He said: “If you look at the market rates in the private sector, and in certain areas of the public sector, the Prison Service is way behind. It has an ageing workforce, it is not recruiting and it is making no attempt to train workers, despite the issue being raised by unions at every opportunity. The service is asking people to work in a dangerous environment for £15,000, when they could be earning £40,000 or £50,000 on another project.”

Bob Blackman, the T&G’s national construction officer, said the Prison Service was a prime example of the public sector falling behind the private in terms of workers’ conditions. He said: “The public sector is becoming the poor relation of the construction industry. It is not playing any role in moving the industry forward on terms and conditions. Public sector clients like local authorities and the Prison Service offers workers a fraction of what private clients are offering.”

The public sector is becoming the poor relation of the construction industry

Bob Blackman, T&G national officer

Construction workers in the Prison Service staged two strikes last year over pay.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “We are not aware of any intended industrial action and we’re still engaged in discussions in regard to the 2005/06 pay settlement.

“The Prison Service finds it unhelpful to negotiate against a background where industrial action is being indicated prior to the completion of negotiations.”