Personnel Today interviews… Alan Ritchie, general secretary, Ucatt

In terms of the trade union movement in the UK, Alan Ritchie may just be the most powerful man you have never heard of.

As head of the construction industry union Ucatt, Ritchie cannot boast the huge membership numbers that larger rivals the Transport and General Workers’ and the GMB unions can. Nor can he profess to make the same media headlines that firebrand leaders Tony Woodley or Mark Serwotka enjoy.

But all that may be about to change.

Shipbuilding roots

A joiner by trade, Ritchie enjoyed a rapid rise in the Scottish labour movement. He joined the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers – which later merged with other unions to become Ucatt – at the age of 18, when working in the shipyards on Glasgow’s River Clyde. He was heavily involved in the bitter dispute in the early 1970s to save shipbuilding in the area.

He has been chairman of the Scottish TUC Youth Advisory Committee, and held various positions within Ucatt before becoming Scottish regional secretary in 1991. His rise to the top was completed in October 2004, when he was elected the union’s general secretary.

As well as this, Ritchie is secretary of the joint trade unions involved in the £5.3bn Olympics Games building project. This means, potentially, he wields the power that could mean the difference between a smooth project and one riddled with delays and disputes.

He fears that unless the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) – the body responsible for overseeing the Games – commits to the use of directly employed labour with proper employment contracts, it risks disaster.

Direct employment

“We’re making it absolutely clear that we cannot accept a position where direct employment is not on the agenda,” Ritchie said.

Direct employment would lead to better use of local labour, apprentices and improve health and safety on site, he insisted. He pointed to the successful Sydney Olympics, where direct employment was used and just one worker was killed.

This compared to the Athens Olympics construction, which relied heavily on foreign labour, resulting in at least 13 deaths. Ritchie said there were probably more, as only the deaths of registered nationals were recorded.

“What we are saying to the ODA is that there is only one route to go down – the Australian route – all directly employed, working with unions in a framework for industrial relations,” he said.

Building work on the Olympic stadiums and village is due to start early next year, but so far no agreement has been reached. What the country doesn’t want is another Wembley stadium debacle on its hands, Ritchie said.

“The ODA must learn the lessons from Wembley, where reliance on a subcontracted workforce led to chronic delays, confusion and spiralling costs,” he said.

The project should follow the model of Heathrow Terminal 5, which used predominantly direct labour, and is on course to be delivered on time and on budget, he added.

Ritchie does not reserve his anger exclusively for the ODA. He also attacks: the government over the issue of ‘bogus’ self-employment the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) over the falling prosecution rate of construction deaths and government skills envoy Digby Jones for talking “drivel” about the industry’s skills shortage.

Skills shortage

Bogus self-employment is leading to huge skills shortages and increasing demand for migrant labour, Ritchie said. He estimates up to 55% of the 2.2 million building workers employed in the UK are operating under a false self-employment regime.

These workers hold a CIS4 card, which means they pay reduced tax and National Insurance contributions. Companies using this labour are not operating apprenticeships or providing training, with the resulting skills shortage pushing up demand for migrant labour, he said.

“We estimate about £2.5bn a year is being lost to the Treasury because of this issue,” Ritchie said. “This is the private sector getting a subsidy from the taxpayer, and it’s absolutely scandalous. The government said a new system introduced in April would curb this – it hasn’t even scratched the surface.”

Next on Ritchie’s hit list is the HSE. Research undertaken for the union last month found its prosecutions for construction deaths fell from 42% to just 11% from 1998 to 2004.

Ritchie said this is just not good enough. “The best way of murdering someone in the UK today is to set up a construction firm, break the Health and Safety at Work Act and end up with a paltry fine,” he said. “Some of the fines handed out for deaths on-site are as little as £7,000 – it cannot be justified.”

Ritchie is proud of his union’s specialist nature. Ucatt’s 125,000 members have voted to remain independent, ruling out a merger with other unions, such as the newly formed Unite.

“We want to be able to say that we are the construction union, and if you earn your living from construction, you should be in Ucatt.”

Ritchie’s CV

  • 2004-present General secretary, Ucatt

  • 1991-2004 Scottish regional secretary, Ucatt

  • 1983-1991 Regional organiser, Ucatt

  • 1970-1983 Shop steward, UCS

  • 1968 Joiner, Upper Clyde Shipbuilders

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