Across the world, construction workers are caught between coronavirus risk and joblessness

Construction workers in the Scottish town of Forres await the start of their shift. (Alamy/Peter Devlin)

A daily commute of two-and-a-half hours each way would take a toll on anyone, but for Özkan, a construction worker in Istanbul, the hardest part of his long journey is coping with his fears about what might happen after he gets home.

“The conditions on our job site are deplorable, and I feel psychologically broken with worrying that I might infect other people, especially my wife or my 8-year-old son,” Özkan says. “We don’t have any way to disinfect ourselves on the site, so as soon as I get home, I go straight to the bathroom to take a shower. I can’t kiss my son, I can only greet him from afar.”

Around the world, governments are asking their citizens to stay at home to protect themselves and others against the COVID–19 pandemic, but millions of construction workers are still on the job, caught between risking their health and losing their livelihoods.

“Health and safety is very important, but in places where workers don’t have security, it’s difficult for them not to work,” says Ambet Yuson, general secretary of the Building and Wood Workers’ International global union (BWI). “You can die of coronavirus, but you can also die of hunger.”

More than 15,000 construction workers in Istanbul were let go from their jobs on large projects, most without receiving any compensation, during one two-week period in March as sites began halting operations or reducing their workforces, according to the Turkish construction workers’ union Dev-Yapı-İş. The union estimates that around 295,000 people are employed in construction in Istanbul, and more than a million countrywide. Workers and labour advocates say those who remain employed have been offered few protections against coronavirus in an already-dangerous occupation where it is difficult to enforce social distancing.

“Masks are distributed at some construction sites, but not many. Both knowledge about how to use these masks and especially the number available, are very insufficient. No other precautions are taken,” says Dr. Ercan Duman, a member of the Occupational Health and Workplace Medicine Commission of the Istanbul Chamber of Physicians. A recent report by the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK), which includes Dev-Yapı-İş, indicates that DİSK members have tested positive for COVID-19 at a rate three times higher than the average rate per 1000 people tested among the general public in Turkey.

At the site where Özkan and around 70 others are employed, he says the only change has been a directive for workers to sit apart while eating, a measure he calls “meaningless” given the poor hygiene standards in their makeshift canteen.

Videos and photos circulated on social media by Turkish unions and their supporters show workers crammed into cafeterias andsleeping 10 to a room in on-site dorms. Describing the worker accommodation at his site, Özkan says: “The street is cleaner. You live in filth. It’s contrary to human dignity.”

Essential work?

Construction industry practices have come under scrutiny in many countries amid the on-going pandemic as governments set divergent — and not always clear — policies on the kinds of building projects that are considered essential work and thus allowed to continue amid stay-at-home orders and lockdowns.

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“It’s understandable that the public is concerned, because they’re looking out of their windows in the city and seeing this construction going on that’s raising issues about social distancing,” says Ian Woodland, construction national officer for the British and Irish trade union Unite. “There are a number of projects that are critical infrastructure like building hospitals, but others, like luxury flats being built, are not critical in nature.”

Unite estimates that only around a quarter of the UK’s construction sites have suspended work amid the pandemic. The union has called for tougher measures to be taken to enforce safety, and to ensure that workers are not compelled to work on non-essential projects. Nearly 130 members of parliament have signed on to a letter that raises concerns about the increased coronavirus risk posed by allowing non-essential workplaces, including construction sites, to stay open. Similar debates are occurring in large cities in the United States, with 10,000 members of a major construction industry union in Boston holding a work stoppage this month over coronavirus-related health and safety concerns.

“We believe essential construction work can continue if health and safety precautions are taken,” says Yuson of BWI. “If a site is shut down, you have to make sure the workers have income, and that their jobs are secured.”

The logistics of much building work, and the structure of the industry in many countries, make either option difficult to ensure.

“For certain jobs on-site, pairing up is a necessity for safety reasons as well as the nature of the work. It’s impossible to do the recommended social distancing of two metres in all construction operations,” says Woodland. “Starting with travelling to work, either on company buses or on public transport, to queuing up to clock in and get onto the worksite, to accessing canteen and toilet facilities during the workday — it’s virtually impossible to enforce social distancing in all of those situations.”

Precarious, migrant workers

In many countries, including both Turkey and the UK, construction workers are often self-employed, irregularly employed by agencies, or employed by subcontractors, conditions which may result in them being left out of paid furlough schemes or not receiving government subsidies for the unemployed. This precarity can have dangerous consequences.

In Turkey, the vast majority of the construction workforce in Istanbul and other large cities is made up of internal migrants from smaller towns and rural provinces. When workers were laid off earlier in the pandemic without compensation, many returned to their hometowns, potentially contributing to the spread of the virus. Since Turkey halted most intercity travel in late March, those who lose their jobs are marooned in the cities where they had worked, often with little financial or social support.

Similar scenarios have played out elsewhere. “The lockdown in India has left many internal migrants, mostly construction workers, stuck in the cities without food to eat,” says Yuson. “They have to work to get paid, so you still see many people in the streets, going to work, or trying to find work.”

The migrant workforce is also at high risk in Gulf countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, both of which have large building sectors.

“Construction has been deemed an essential industry in the UAE and protections for non-citizens are being rolled back through allowances for employers to cut workers’ wages,” says Isobel Archer, a project assistant at the London-based Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC). Though the measures in the UAE call for obtaining the mutual consent of the employee, already-vulnerable migrant workers have little power to negotiate, she says.

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“Both countries have taken measures to close social venues and cancel or postpone events, so they’re clearly aware that coronavirus is a huge public health issue,” Archer adds. “That’s why it’s so alarming that there’s this distinction being made in the UAE with migrant workers.”

Developer Emaar Properties recently announced that it would suspend major projects in Dubai, while Qatar has directed private-sector employers to restrict working hours on construction sites and increase health and occupational safety measures to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. But seven of 14 construction companies surveyed by BHRRC on what steps they are taking to protect migrant workers did not respond, and none of those that did had adequate plans in place, the organisation said in a press release.

“The pandemic is really highlighting the need for reform on issues that have been repeatedly investigated by NGOs,” Archer says. Concerns have long been raised about abuse and exploitation of migrant labour in Gulf countries, where workers on projects such as Qatar’s 2022 World Cup facilities often live in cramped, unsanitary conditions on huge labour camps. A coronavirus infection in one of these camps would be “a ticking time bomb,” says Yuson.

BWI and other unions are calling for increased medical facilities on worksites, free coronavirus testing and treatment, reduced workforces and a higher number of shifts to facilitate social distancing, and for workers to be able to speak out without reprisal about risky conditions.

Istanbul construction worker Özkan says that when concerns are raised about workplace issues, employers first stall for time, then dismiss those who dared to complain. “After that, you’re not going to be hired at any other worksite,” he says. Unions in Turkey have reported that workers are also being fired if they don’t sign declarations agreeing not to hold their employer responsible if they contract coronavirus while on the job.

“Blacklisting has been a problem in the UK as well, with workers afraid to raise issues due to the precarity of their job,” says Woodland of Unite. “They could get a tap on the shoulder and be told they’re not needed on site anymore. So there’s a possibility that health and safety issues are not being reported as a result.”

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