A Danish construction worker considers the effects of migration on the industry. This is the foreword to the book Battle Sites – we’re raising money to have it translated into English.
“For me the enemy were the ones we couldn’t see. The enemy flew over our heads in their private jets.”
It was a beautiful summer afternoon the 16th of August 2013. It was neither too warm or too cold – just perfect for a Northerner like me. Clouds moved themselves through the blue sky, and a fair wind carried the smog out over Oresund. It was one of those days when it would have been great to be a concrete worker.
The only problem was that today I wasn’t a concrete worker. Instead of being busy binding iron or vibrating concrete, I stood inactive, looking into the work site where others were involved in creating Copenhagen’s new underground metro. Deep down in the earth a gang of concrete workers was about to pour a large 3500 cubicmeter foundation for the metro station at Norrebro’s Roundabout. The concrete was pumped down from the surface, about 20 meters over the heads of the concrete workers, by two large concrete pumps. The pumps was supplied with concrete by great concrete trucks from the firm Unicon, a new one arriving every ten minutes. Other workers were involved in redirecting the ground water, taking earthen bore samples, and other exciting work. Work that I wasn’t participating in.
It was close to four in the afternoon and the traffic of wage earners on their way home was gradually increasing. Maybe some of them had seen me standing there and thought that I was an unemployed worker, passing time by watching others work. That could very well have been the case, but it wasn’t. I stood there because I had got a text message that an illegal, wildcat blockade, would begin at 4 pm at this particular work site.
The blockade was being organised in response to the fact that the concrete workers laying the foundation were only being paid €9.30 an hour. It was a pay rate that I would have struggled to support myself and my daughter on in this country. But then, none of the concrete workers down in that hole were from this country. They were from Portugal, and there, €9.30 an hour is OK pay. As one of them had said to me one time in a mixture of English and Portuguese, “We have to work! Portugal no good economia. Entende?” I understood well enough. But I also understood my fellow workers, who soon would shut down his work.
As I stood there in my own thoughts about the inequalities in the world’s economy, one of my old work buddies came to the roundabout.
“Hey Jakob, great to see you.”
“The same to you, my friend. Have you found anything to sink your teeth into?”
“Nah, it’ll happen. Have you seen that Trevi is involved down there?”
He looked with interest down on the building site. We had both worked for Trevi on the construction of the new metro, and we had both been fired on – according to us – dubious grounds. And that afternoon in August 2013 we both stood outside the fence and counted the seconds until the blockade would begin. For a few minutes we looked on, in silence, as machines and workers moved around the construction site in perfectly synchronised chaos. Then my companion broke the silence.
“There are Poles, Italians, Germans and Portuguese. If you look past the Unicon people, there bloody well aren’t any Danes. It’s completely crazy. We two should be down there working on that metro for our country, not foreigners… Do you ever think that what’s happening here is only the beginning? They’ve already taken our jobs. Soon they’ll take our entire country.”
In one way he was right. But, I couldn’t see those guys down there as enemies. I saw them as fellow workers, who had to leave their families in order to find work. For me the enemy were the ones we couldn’t see. The enemy flew over our heads in their private jets.
We discussed a little back and forth but four o’clock had come. The blockade started and we had other things to think about.
That discussion my work buddy and I had in August 2013 could have taken place between construction workers throughout Western Europe. And echoes of it could have been heard among unskilled- and skilled wage earners of almost all industries. At a time when experts and opinion-formers continue to debate whether there is a problem, we discuss whom we should hate.
This book is about the wave of a cheap East European workers that has all but overrun the Danish construction industry in the years since the Economic Union’s western expansion on May 1, 2004. East European workers’ low salaries and poor working conditions have created enormous pressure on Danish workers’ salaries and working conditions. This pressure is also referred to as social dumping.
We are telling the story about the increasing pressure on Danish construction workers, and not least, about the construction unions’ struggle against the pressure. The Danish unions – 3F, Wood Industry and Construction-TIB, the Painters Union, the Danish Electrical Union, and the Sheet Metal and Pipeworker Union – have together attempted to created a dam to protect Danish wages and work conditions. And their members have been the among first who have noticed that the dam is buckling under pressure.
We begin this book on a construction site, in order to emphasise that we the authors are not impartial observers. Jakob Mathiassen, concrete worker and rank and file member of 3F, has taken part in the struggle against social dumping. Klaus Buster Jensen, as a journalist employed by the trade union 3F, has covered social dumping in the construction industry. However, it should be emphasised that this book was neither commissioned nor paid for by the labour movement.
Jakob has written the book’s stories from real work places where some of the most striking conflicts against social dumping have played out in the last ten years. Klaus has written the background chapters on the politics and economy behind the eastern expansion and the consequences for the construction industry in Denmark.
Descriptions of the individual conflicts are built on written sources, but, in addition to this, to a large extent on interviews with the involved parties from all sides: workers from here and abroad, shop stewards, and representatives for entrepreneurs and builders. The dialogue is written from the sources’ memories, and as much as possible confirmed by the participants. All information has been verified from as many sources as possible. The background chapters are built primarily on written sources. The book is supplied with an abundance of notes, so the reader can see where we got our information from.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.