Construction unions split over decision to allow sites to remain open

Stoppage of all but essential projects ‘inevitable’, Unite says

Construction unions appeared split over news that the Government would allow work to continue on building sites while asking many businesses to shut until next month to combat Covid-19.

The Government is allowing work to continue on construction sites, which employ more than 30,000 people directly around the Republic, while saying other businesses should close or people should work from home until April 19th.

Tom Fitzgerald, regional officer for construction with trade union Unite, argued it was "inevitable" that work would cease on all but essential projects within days as it was not possible to take precautions such as staying at least two metres away from others while working on a building site.

“So many things in construction require at least two sets of hands,” he said. Mr Fitzgerald added that any rigorous analysis would show that it was impossible to maintain social distancing on building sites.


He also maintained that employers had confirmed that they had difficulty getting hand sanitisers, gloves, masks and other protections that workers would need to avoid infection.

The union official said his organisation, which represents more than 5,000 workers on the Republic’s sites, favours shutting construction along with businesses such as non-essential retail while providing pay protection for the industry’s workers.

However, John Regan, construction sector organiser with Siptu, which represents about half those working on sites, said that the union wanted to work with employers to ensure that they were enforcing precautions against Covid-19 infection.

“We are going to be looking to engage with employers to make sure that social distancing is in force for the whole industry, it has to happen,” he stressed.

Mr Regan said that he could “count on one hand” the number of calls he had received from members concerned about their situation at work.

Unions representing building workers are due to meet on Wednesday to discuss the situation. While the industry employs 30,000 people on sites, total numbers at work in the sector could be closer to 150,000.

This includes those involved in making and transporting building materials, engineers, and a range of other staff.


The Construction Industry Federation (CIF), which represents the industry's employers, believes work should continue with social distancing and other precautions in place.

A spokesman pointed out that building contractors wanted the State and other clients to extend deadlines on projects to allow them implement these measures properly.

Earlier the CIF and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) issued a joint statement advising employers to comply with advice from the Health Services Executive on protecting themselves from Covid-19.

Tom Parlon, the federation's director-general, said compliance was critical to construction continuing.

“We urge contractors and workers to work together to enforce social distancing regardless of any impacts on productivity or deadlines,” he said.

Patricia King, ICTU's general secretary, said congress recommended that building workers follow the health service's guidelines. "Congress will continue to watch the situation closely," she added.

Tech giant Facebook has temporarily suspended construction work on its data centre in Clonee, Co Meath, to protect the health and safety of people employed there.

The social media company said it had agreed with main contractor Mace to temporarily halt construction. Work there will wind down over the coming week, according to a Facebook statement.

Barry O'Halloran

Barry O'Halloran

Barry O’Halloran covers energy, construction, insolvency, and gaming and betting, among other areas