The UK’s largest M&E contractors are seeking to adopt a new national agreement with their employees, but have run into fierce opposition, with union protests at sites around the country.
The contractors say that this change is necessary to remain competitive and to improve productivity. The Unite union has said that operatives’ pay and conditions are “under attack” and that the employers are seeking to cut costs by up to 30% by introducing a new grade of semi-skilled workers.
The proposed new Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA, was drawn up by the employers’ trade body the Heating and Ventilating Contractors’ Association (HVCA). It is designed to harmonise pay and terms and conditions for workers employed by: NG Bailey, Balfour Beatty Engineering Services, T Clarke, Crown House Technologies, Gratte Brothers, MJN Colston, Shepherd Engineering Services and SPIE Matthew Hall.
They say the new terms are vital if the industry is to remain competitive and able to continue directly employing skilled workers. The alternative is fewer directly employed operatives, they say.
The contractors insist that nothing within the proposed agreement changes the terms of their existing collective agreements.
Unite says that employees who do not sign the new contracts will be sacked.
HVCA chief executive Blane Judd responded. “Every worker is being offered the new terms and their job will continue to exist whether they sign the agreement or not. However, if they choose not to sign then someone else will be directly employed in that position under the new terms.”
He explained that the BESNA is designed to modernise the profile of the sector’s workforce and make it more flexible, multi-skilled and integrated. He said “our door is always open” to Unite for further negotiations, but added that threats of industrial action were not helping.
“There is absolutely nothing in the agreement about cutting workers’ pay or replacing skilled staff with semi-skilled workers,” said Mr Judd, who moved to the HVCA just in June. “In fact, the BESNA is designed to encourage a multi-skilled and integrated workforce capable of delivering the more sophisticated projects now expected of the M&E sector in the modern era.
“We started discussions with Unite in March and commenced formal negotiations in April, but Unite walked out of negotiations at the beginning of the second meeting,” he added. “There is nothing threatening here – quite the opposite – and we are more than happy to clear up the confused messages and misunderstandings that have appeared over the past fortnight.”
The government’s Construction Strategy calls for greater use of integrated teams able to provide a complete design/manufacture/install service that speeds up the delivery of projects; cuts costs and improves sustainability. The BESNA is seen by employers as a component of the strategy for creating a workforce capable of meeting these demands.
Alongside the agreement, the major contractors and the HVCA are developing a training and apprenticeship programme aimed at equipping the existing workforce with additional skills and ensuring all new entrants are capable of working in multi-skilled teams.
For the eight firms, the BESNA would become the single, unified agreement – replacing the five existing agreements that have grown up since the 1960s –streamlining the industrial relations process. The existing agreements will remain in place for those employers wishing to use them – although it is expected that, over time, more building engineering services contractors employing a multi-disciplined workforce will adopt the new terms, HVCA said.
The HVCA has set up a website to puts its case across - www.besna.info