8 Jun 2007

On the books and off the pace

Propping up the bar of the gym the other night, I had a fascinating chat with a guy I used to build with in the 1980s and who, unlike me, continues to plough that furrow today. Pete runs a small building business, mostly doing upmarket renovations and improvements, plus the occasional new build. We talk maybe five times a year so I have a fair idea of what he’s up to and how he is doing.

The issue of timesheets came up. In particular, the habit of certain of his employees of starting a little late and knocking off a little early. Maybe not by much, say ten or fifteen minutes, but enough when you add it all up to make quite a large impression on overall costs. Some are worse than others, as you might expect, but they all tend to do it a little bit. That, and the extended tea break. And the ever so slightly elongated lunch break. Maybe 30 or even 45 minutes during what is meant to be a 7.5 hour day. It’s getting on for 15% of the working day. Pete was of a mind to try and break this habit and was pondering how best to go about it. “Let’s face it,” he said, “in reality, it’s nothing short of theft.”

Pete reckoned it was the mindset of a tradesman who has been on the books with a biggish builder in the past. It’s what they have all learned to do. A sort of 1950s, I’m Alright Jack outlook on life which says that you basically resent selling your labour to another and that you will therefore do as little as possible during the time that you are selling your labour. “It doesn’t happen with the price work subbies,” said Pete. “There is a pecking order. The price work subbies, the genuine tradesmen who are working for themselves, work really hard and mostly pretty well. They stay to see a job through and don’t mess around. Next come the false subbies, the guys who are really working for you full time but maintain their subcontract status; they are somewhere in the middle in terms of effort. And at the bottom of the heap are the employees, the ones who have been taken on the books. They just don’t seem to bother all that much and do the barest minimum.”

All the time I have been working in construction, the government and, in particular, the Inland Revenue have striven to get building workers on the books. This is in order to enhance their tax take, as people working on the books pay full national insurance as well as income tax. They also make a rather lame health and safety argument saying that building workers are better protected by being on the books, despite there not being a shred of evidence to support this view.

But what has been widely ignored is the psychological effect of taking a self-employed tradesman and turning him into an employee. There is something ever so slightly noble about being your own man and that little spark is gently extinguished when you remove this status. I saw it happen in the late 90s when the Inland Revenue made an attempt to stamp out bogus self-employment as they called it. Whether you like it or not, an employee is placed in a craven position, at the beck and call of another man, and most builders don’t really take to that too kindly. Rather than maturing into responsible adults who shoulder their bit with pride, they regress into truculent school kids looking for a bit of a skive. It’s just the way it is.

By way of illustration, I mentioned to Pete that I had had a guy working for me on our bathroom job in the spring who had driven something like 40 miles to get to work, who arrived at 7.20am and proceeded to sit in his van outside our house until just after 8, before starting work. I couldn’t believe that someone would bother to arrive at work so early in order just to sit in their van. But he would return to the van for docky break around 10, and again around lunch for a good half hour. And at 4, on the dot, he was off, even if he was half way through a minor job. Needless to say, he was on the books, clockwatching rather than concentrating on the job in hand.

Whilst it may suit the government to have building workers on the books, I am not convinced it suits the builders or their clients. Bear that in mind next time you are hiring.

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