NIHE & Outsourcing – Militant action gets results

By Susan Fitzgerald, Unite organiser (personal capacity)
On Monday 17th June Unite members in Mel Davison Construction arrived for work at 7.30am. By 7.45am they were told that their jobs were gone. No further explanation was given.
Mel Davison Construction carried out maintenance work for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in Belfast and Craigavon. 149 women and men were laid off that day with no assurances on the pay they were owed to date and, crucially, if they would be transferred into a new company to deliver the service on behalf of tenants.
When shop stewards at the Shankill Road depot asked senior management where the owner was they were told that “he was under real pressure and had to prioritise his own affairs”. By 8.30am the workers involved had taken control of the stores and office and refused to leave until the company spoke to them and told them what was going on.
An occupation ensued and straight away all involved were on the phone mobilising support from the community, doing interviews and keeping spirits high despite real concerns for the future. By mid-day, several news crews had arrived along with local politicians including the Housing Minister Nelson McCausland who the workers wanted answers from. To the media, politicians and the Housing Executive a very strong message was sent – jobs and pay or no peace.
The ‘Pastor’ of the Christian Fellowship in Dundalk received dozens of calls from concerned workers asking him to use his position to get Mel Davison – a parishioner – to talk to them. Mel Davison is a Christian who promoted his religion on the side of his fleet of vans with the word ‘Believe’. No assistance was received from the church.
Despite this, by the next afternoon assurances had been won on all the key issues – the pay owed to date and that all Unite members would be taken on direct by the NIHE. On this basis it was agreed to end the occupation with a warning that if the assurances weren’t delivered upon – there would be more militant action.
The ‘insourcing’ of workers back to the Housing Executive is confirmation of the fact that privatisation doesn’t work. Unite has been fighting for direct employment in this sector for the past seven months. In very similar circumstances earlier in the year, almost thirty Unite members in Garrivan & O’Rourke, which also went into administration, occupied the company premises until they too had assurances on direct employment to the Housing Executive.
The construction firms seeking Housing Executive work have engaged in cut-throat bidding for contracts, with some coming in at minus 30%! The only way they can make money at this level is by attacking workers terms and conditions and cutting corners on service and materials to tenants homes, or as is now being exposed – overcharging the Housing Executive.
The campaign by Unite stopped these companies replacing core workers with sub-contractors. It also stopped them from putting lives at risk through forcing them to adhere to health and safety legislation. This meant that in some cases the business was not sustainable and the Housing Executive were left with no option but to insource.
This is a victory for all the Unite members involved – direct employment and a public service is the only way to protect both workers and tenants. This episode also shows that increasingly it’s militant action that is necessary to get the result that workers need.

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