Extract: How construction workers use a Facebook group to set their own terms

“If you try to underpay you just get annihilated in the comments. You have to delete the post” – Kevin Walshe, road worker and Facebook group moderator.

Despite its many sins, Facebook has been instrumental in providing a new way for workers in old industries to come together to improve their life at work. Full-time machine operator Kevin Walshe’s group, Lads and Gangs, is one such example.

The group – which is used primarily as a tool to help link employers and employees in the construction sector – has in effect, set its own minimum wage, while manufacturing a way to hold employers accountable. It has amassed tens of thousands of members, as well as inspiring multiple sister groups for different parts of the industry.

It is not only a forum for sourcing and distributing work, but also acts as a place where people can share tips and advice related to the industry, building solidarity and joining the dots between workers, who might not otherwise know each other.

One particular challenge in this industry is that often construction companies liquidate without protecting the workers. Sometimes they don’t get paid for work they have done, leaving them out of pocket. Some companies have become known for doing this, while others have been able to fly under the radar. “The working man at the bottom often doesn’t get paid – but suppliers do,” says Walshe. “It’s almost like some companies do it on purpose.”

Walshe says these groups are important for workers because they operate differently from recruitment websites, such as Indeed or CV-Library – they allow workers to identify and call out bad employers. By sharing information, people are able to issue a warning to others or join forces with those who have not been paid.

A place to get help and to be remembered

Started in 2014, the original group was created for UK-based Construction Plant Competence Scheme (CPCS) operators, a subset of construction workers. As news spread about this new way to acquire and advertise work, membership gathered pace.

The types of work being advertised expanded, opening up to people that maintain gas, water and electric systems, as well as those working in demolition and more besides. Then came sector focused spin offs, as well as another internationally focused construction group with more than a million members.

A lot of the jobs advertised through Lads and Gangs listings are short term – they could be a few months down to just a couple of weeks. These arrangements suit a lot of people in the group, many of whom are self-employed and may need extra work for a short period of time, says Walshe. The construction industry in the UK could not run without these kinds of contractors.

The group is open to any person in the industry, with posts seen by thousands of people and many getting instant responses. “People who chip in often say, ‘that’s a bad person to work for because they’ve done this, that and the other’. If someone is common at late-paying people, then people jump on the posts,” says Walshe.

Usually, Walshe and other moderators don’t allow posts that quote below a certain fee for a particular job. If something below the average wage does get approved, people will criticise the person posting it in the comments as a matter of course, says Walshe. “If you try to underpay you just get annihilated in the comments. You have to delete the post,” says Walshe.

Many construction workers are not in official unions, and as long as this remains the case, Facebook will be an important space to understand going rates and potentially dodgy employers, as well as helping to benchmark workers’ rights. This comes with some risks. The platform has tried to shut the group down due to occasional posts that break its rules. Walshe says 99% of the time moderators keep this under control, but a group with more than 100,000 members can be unruly.

Other kinds of posts help people build solidarity and share information about improving their working conditions. Some recommend equipment, such as ear protectors for drilling or advice about the best boots to buy. Others outline the correct ways to signpost things, such as roadworks. It’s a handy resource as well as a thriving recruitment tool.

There are even posts commemorating members of the forum who have passed away, including one worker who “helped design and build from scratch, some of the first ever epoxy resin lining rigs” and went on to train many others in the industry. Another eulogises a worker who was a “legend from the cable world”.

A hot commodity – offered for free

Employment pools like this are potentially hot commodities. Elsewhere in the industry, construction workers routinely pay recruiters in the region of £20 a month to be on their books – a similar fee to some traditional union memberships.

The moderators of Lads and Gangs have been approached by recruiters and marketing companies, who either want to collaborate or buy them out. “None of the companies seem to benefit the group, you know. It’s okay to say ‘it’d be safe to work with a recruitment company’, but then it might only be their jobs that were posted,” says Walshe. “All the other companies would have to go through them. I’m not going to do that. It’s not what it was for and it won’t work. The group would lose its feel.”

Walshe doesn’t get anything financially from running the group – and still, he’s always looking to improve the space for workers. He has considered creating his own website for construction workers, or an official place to get advice, but believes it would be difficult to build a consensus for what that would look like among other moderators. In the meantime Facebook provides a nigh inevitable default.

“If I posted a picture of a perfectly blue sky with a cloud in the middle of it, somebody would say ‘that’s not a perfect blue sky’. And we start arguing over it. I don’t have the time. Or the energy. If it came across, right? If something else was done, then I’d say the word, go for it. But at the moment I don’t have the capacity, the energy or the ability to,” says Walshe.

The potential for unions

Lads and Gangs is an example of how power can be built among workers, on widely used public platforms, who wouldn’t necessarily look to an official union. It also shows how a critical mass of people can have immense bargaining power when it comes to setting things such as a standard wage.

These kinds of groups could offer an opportunity for existing trade unions to organise workers in a more official way. If unions were able to get even a fraction of those within these kinds of communities on board, supporting admins with funding and putting more formalised organising infrastructure in place, their power may be immense.

As it stands, Walshe says he feels there is a lack of knowledge among the construction workers that use these groups about what a trade union could do for them. Which may be a great place for unions to start.

This is an extract from Reorganise: 15 stories of workers fighting back in a digital age. The author is Lucy Harley-McKeown and the book was edited by Hannah O’Rourke of Labour Together & Edward Saperia of Newspeak House

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