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May Day is more than a day off work

Rory Olcayto
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On May Day we must reflect on the deadly toll construction takes on its workforce, says Rory Olcayto

May Day is the modern name for the Celtic fertility festival of Beltane, which marked the start of the summer. But most Britons probably think of this auspicious date as a holiday, a day off work. Its ancient roots are celebrated in Edinburgh with a giant bonfire on Calton Hill on May Day’s eve, while throughout England maypoles and Morris dancing connect the public to this island’s past. But May Day is also International  Workers’ Day, and has been since 1889.

The commemoration emerged as the trade union and labour movements grew and began to demand better conditions and rights for workers. In those days, it was not uncommon for building workers to labour for 16 hours a day, often in very unsafe conditions.  Today conditions for site workers in the UK are considerably better, although the HSE’s figures for fatal injuries in construction are still unreasonably high. According to the HSE’s most recent report – for the year 2013/14 – 42 people lost their lives in the workplace over the course of the year. Construction accounted for about 5 per cent of Britain’s workforce, but 31 per cent of the fatal injuries, 10 per cent of the reported major and specified injuries and 6 per cent of injuries requiring more than seven days off work.

What’s more striking, however, is how little site workers – the men and women who actually construct the built environment around us – are heralded, or even acknowledged, not only by the public and the world at large, but more particularly by the architects and clients who work alongside them. It does happen every so often. In Liège, for example, at the entrance to the gargantuan railway station designed by Santiago Calatrava, the labour that toiled to erect it is immortalised at the entrance. As our columnist Owen Hatherley noted on his blog about the Belgian city in 2010: ‘There’s a canvas with photographs of every one of the building workers, which leads into a small exhibition, where photographs of the construction go alongside portraits of construction workers. Calatrava himself appears in only one photograph.’ Might we see similar gestures in the UK, especially for the landmark projects which so enrich the cities we live in? I hope so.

Furthermore, while site safety conditions in the UK are improving, elsewhere in the world where British architects are engaged – Qatar springs to mind – the lives of construction workers are at risk. The government of Qatar admitted last year that almost 1,000 migrant construction workers died on its soil in 2012 and 2013 and the International Trade Union Congress estimates that the death toll could hit 4,000 if the deaths continue at the current rate.

In essence, these people whose lives are at risk – all over the world – are colleagues of ours. Spare a moment, at least, of your May Day holiday to reflect on this state of affairs.


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