What do I know about Richard Laco? Thanks to the joys of social media I can tell you that he watched Frasier, Lost and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, listened to Busta Rhymes, De La Soul and NWA, and played ice hockey and basketball. He was 31 years old, a former student at Middlesex University, and on Wednesday last week he was crushed to death while watching the installation of a concrete staircase at the new Francis Crick building near Kings Cross where he was working as a labourer.
The building itself has a chequered history; locals were nervous about its construction, since the building will be carrying out research into level 4 toxins – as dangerous a biological hazard as you can find. Locating the lab at the southern end of one of Europe’s largest concentrations of residential housing seemed, frankly, bizarre. But the project was forced through, in part due to intensive lobbying of Camden planners by Civil Servants at the Cabinet Office during the end days of new Labour.
The main beneficiary of this lobbying was Laing O’Rourke: building industry sources estimate its value at between £350 and £650 million, enough money you might have thought to justify an intensive health and safety regime. But so concerned was Laing about safety at the workplace that it has even banned access to the site to officials of the union UNITE, and no shop stewards or union health and safety representatives have been recognised by the employer.
148 workers were killed in the workplace in 2012-2013 according to the HSE; 39 of them were construction workers. 1900 major accidents were reported in construction in the same year, just over one in ten of them caused by moving or falling objects.
Laing turns over around £3.6 billion a year, less than 1% of which it declares as profit, and is therefore taxable. A hefty chunk of its wealth is public money: roughly 5% of its turnover in the present financial year is likely to come from the Crick project alone.
Its major shareholder Ray O’Rourke is a KBE and sits on the panel advising the government on the benefits of the HS2 high speed rail link – a project likely to be worth be tens of millions to O’Rourke personally.
Laing was also a major contributor to the Consulting Association blacklisting operation which operated to keep trade unions out of the construction industry.
Much of this I suspect Laco himself knew – a graduate with a first class degree in economics, he had worked as a City trader before employment prospects at the bottom of that industry dried up. He would have been on a self-employed contract, as are the vast majority of Laing’s workers. I doubt in all the time he had worked as a building worker he ever saw anyone from the Health and Safety Executive, which is now investigating his death. The HSE payroll was cut from 4,500 to 3,000 between 1994 and 2010, when the government proposed further cuts – 35% of its annual budget to go by 2015.
Work hard, knuckle down, keep your opinions to yourself, do what your manager tells you, and if times are tough you can retrain and work elsewhere. These are the common messages of personal survival under capitalism. They end, as life ended for Richard Laco, with a two day work stoppage for investigation (a pause so lengthy that you could almost present it to the press as respectful), before work at the site resumes and the important business of increasing O’Rourke’s wealth can recommence.
This, in an episode is how neo-liberalism works: vast sums of public money are handed over to private companies, who are allowed to keep the major share of their revenue – making profits they could never dream of without that subsidy. Services to protect workers, such as the Health and Safety Executive, are slowly wound down. A vast legislative armoury exists to protect employers from strikes by workers, and to make it as difficult as possible for them to organise at sites such as the Crick building. The state becomes a means to nurture the insufficiently-rich, at the expense of all the rest of us.
Wednesday next week, 20th November, is going to be a TUC day of action for the whole labour movement to protest against balcklisting. At 7am protesters will be at Laing’s Cheesgrater site in the City, and at 10am they will be outside the Crick building to remember Laco and all the other building workers killed in the name of profit.