TROUBLE IS brewing in the construction industry, after striking builders warned yesterday they would actively ensure all building sites were free of subcontractors today.
The construction industry yesterday came to a halt, after thousands of workers island-wide launched a 24-hour strike to protest employers’ decision to freeze pay rises and the Cost of Living Allowance (CoLA).
They say that despite a recent agreement reached between employers and unions – after an intervention by the Labour Ministry – for CoLA to be left untouched, employers cut it unilaterally.
Yesterday’s work stoppage started at 7am, with strikers guarding building sites until 10am to ensure no work was carried out. They then went to their unions’ district offices, where speeches were made and two resolutions were approved.
The resolutions were handed over to the Federation of Associations of Building Contractors Cyprus (OSEOK) and the Labour Minister at noon.
One resolution stated that workers intended to visit all construction sites today to ensure there were no subcontractors in action.
Their main gripe is that permanent staff are being fired and being replaced with subcontractors and EU workers to save money.
“As of (today), wherever there are subcontractors carrying out work – such as building bricks, placing floors, plastering walls – they will be distanced immediately from their workplace,” the builders said in their resolution. Asked later how they planned to carry this out, they said they would “take the actions that are necessary”.
The builders also called on contractors to withdraw a letter sent to the ministry last December, voicing their intention to freeze CoLA rises for 2012. This, they said, was in violation of the agreement reached between Employers and Industrialists federation (OEV) and trade unions SEK and PEO at the start of the month.
The ministry was urged to put an end to the “constant wave of redundancies” imposed on workers in the industry, by contractors offering humiliating wages and work conditions.
“The workers in the construction industry are certain that with their actions they will demonstrate the massive problem of unfair competition, which has turned into a scourge for the workers,” said the resolution.
Builders also called on the ministry to alter its tenders’ procedures for public works in a way that takes other factors apart from the lowest price into account.
The strikers said they had been authorised by the unions “to expand measures whenever they deemed it necessary, and at the same time they said they would respond to any invitation from the Labour Ministry’s mediation services to renew the collective agreements and resolve the problems in the construction industry”.
Around 2,000 builders gathered outside the PEO office in Nicosia after the resolutions were prepared and marched to the nearby offices of OSEOK – and then the Labour Ministry – to hand them over.
Receiving the resolutions, the head of OSEOK, Nicos Kelepeshis, said that if builders went ahead with their threat to remove subcontractors from the sites today, this would mean “the destruction of the construction industry”.
He rejected workers’ accusations, saying it was in fact the unions that were violating the collective agreement by striking.
Earlier in the day, Kelepeshis deemed the strike “unacceptable”, saying everyone should understand there is an economic crisis, which was bringing construction to its knees.
His comments followed those of Yiannakis Ioannou, the head of SEK’s builders’ union, who said contractors were taking advantage of the crisis to fire workers.
“We have some serious claims about redundancies,” said Ioannou. “Discrimination is taking place, which is sending workers to the unemployment offices, while they are being replaced by illegal workers.”
OEV deputy head Michalis Antoniou said this was a very sad day for constructions. He said the situation would only harm the already-hurting industry further, adding that the damage would be massive, not just for contractors but for builders too.
Antoniou said he hoped yesterday’s events weren’t repeated and admitted that both sides were responsible for how things turned out.
“We have allowed things to lead to a conflict, from which only wounds will be caused, in an industry that is already one of the most affected,” he said. “We all have responsibilities, OEV and everyone, but also the unions, which eventually have to understand that we can only find a solution through dialogue.”