High Speed Railway: Workers exploited in the contractors' empire

  • Nothing is what it seems inside the Basque Country's largest public works programme. It could have been a symbol of progress, but it has brought extreme precariousness with it. They say it will connect us with the north of Europe, but it is using the sweat and blood of people from the south. Thousands of millions of Euros, two decades and 6,000 people are going to be needed to build the High Speed Railway. Will they be able to do that without squeezing the workers' necks? We have stepped over orange-coloured fences to find out, and seen things in red on the other side.

Urko Apaolaza Avila @urkoapaolaza
2017ko maiatzaren 17a
"We laugh so as not to cry. Many of us have no entitlement to unemployment benefit and we're only here to get that right. Then they'll say there's a lot of work around, ok, but at what price? Do I need to have black skin to be a slave?"

"The people with torn trousers always end up paying for everything." It sounds like an old expression, but these words – which a High Speed Railway worker, with a helmet on his head and overalls on said recently – put the current situation perfectly. He was looking at the bridge which is being built over the river Urumea in the Hernani section of the works. It is increasingly difficult for the authorities to put patches on the social rupture which is affecting 99% of people, and even more so to explain how large public works such as theHigh Speed Railway has become a source of precariousness and the main tool for contractors to fix their accounts.

Almost eleven years have gone by since the Basque Y project's first section began to be built in Araba near Arrazua-Ubarrundia, close to Gasteiz. The promoters promised that the three main cities in the Basque Autonomous Community would have train links by 2013. Time has put things in their place: the finishing date has been put back, minutes have been added to the journey times – according to the latest information, travelling between the three cities will take practically the same time as going by car.

Apparently, the High Speed Railway will not be in place until 2023, but until now no more than half of it has been built, and the most difficult parts have yet to be started on: the Bergara link – the Y in the middle – and the entrances to the cities. The final design was recently agreed on by the Basque Government, the city councils and the Spanish Government. Apart from the models of some stations and the quantity of square metres which will used for thebuilding projects, not much more has been specified: according to Spanish Promotion minister Iñigo de la Serna, setting dates and finance would be "too daring".

Arantxa Tapia, the Basque minister for Infrastructure, stated recently on Ser Radio that there had been a "political decision" behind the delay in building the High Speed Railway; something which Josu Erkoreka, the spokesman, had said two months previously. The High Speed Railway was a valuable bargaining piece for the Basque Nationalist Party in its negotiations about the Spanish budget, and we found out about the price last week: Rajoy's government is going to keep 3,380 million Euros back for building the railway.

Infographics in Basque of the adjudications for the construction of the High Speed railway

In spite of the difficulties, thousands of millions of Euros have been buried in concrete over the last two decades, at the same time as cuts in public spending and privatisations have gone ahead. The University of the Basque Country and Barcelona University's Ekopol research group have told that the money spent on the High Speed Railway will never be recouped. From the point of view of the energy used and pollution caused by the works, too, dozens of years would be needed to move out of the red and into the black.

There has been a lot of talk about the ecological and economic benefits which the High Speed Railway will bring, but do we have any idea about the human cost of the works? Sustainable projects are of no value whatsoever if they are based on the sweat and blood of people forced to work in vile conditions.At present there are 6,000 people building the Basque Y; 80% of them are foreigners, and they are subcontracted in highly restrictive work conditions, according to trades union ELA.

In 2011 the Basque Parliament passed a measure allowing trades unions access to the High Speed Railway works. Since then ELA has reported numerous cases of exploitation: they found workers at Arrasate who had been forced to work for 22 hours non-stop; in one transport company in Tolosa they had accelerated deadlines; at Aramaio, Legorreta, Hernani and several other places they had not complied with regional construction agreements… In some cases there is a difference of 18,000 Euros between what the workers should have been paid and what they actually got.

And where do the inspectors look?

Mihai Cojocaru and Raul Resmella worked in the Urnieta section of the High Speed Railway works under very poor conditions.

The vale of tears of precariousness can be seen all too well in the Sogeprovi subcontract issues. It burst open in 2013, at Tabakalera. The Basque trades union reported that the workers building the Donostia culture centre had very poor conditions (working more than 500 hours extra every year; no holidays or overtime; wages of less than 900 Euros…). Work inspectors finally stepped in, and an agreement was reached with the institutions and companies behind Tabakalera in order to change the situation, and for the workers to be paid what they were owed.

At the same time, a few kilometres away the High Speed Railway was being built at Urnieta using subcontracted workers, sometimes people who had been brought from Tabakalera depending on the amount of work at each moment. After that situation too was reported, the work inspectors gave their answer almost a year later: they saw no sign of overtime or of regulations being contravened.  The signature on the document was that of the work inspector who had examined the situation at Tabakalera. "The irregularities and conditions were the same, the workers and the company too", ELA said in its report. "We wonder if there is some type of special permission with regard to the High Speed Railway."

Mihai Cojocaru: "They laid us off at Christmas and we had to go on the dole. They don't stop your mortgage for that period, and how are you going to pay it with 700 Euros?"

Raul Resmella worked for Sogeprovi in two places. When they finished Tabakalera, they moved him to the High Speed Railway tunnel at Urnieta, and he returned to "reality" there: "It was claustrophobic when I began, I went home and thought 'Do I really have to go back into that hole?'" The sound from the trucks, eyes watering from the gas… Leaving home around 6 and often getting back at 9, and with ripped trousers.  

The inspector knew something about Resmella and the others’ situation because of what had happened at Tabakalera. He visited the works in 2015. "He didn't ask for my data that day. 'What's your name? Ok, bye.' He didn't ask where I had come from, which company I was working for… He only asked me about ear-protectors, I told him I'd taken them off to eat a sandwich: how could I speak with my workmates otherwise?"

The workers at Sogeprovi had no idea what paid holidays were. Mihai Cojocaru, like many others, was laid off at Christmas –at the only time when work stopped– and he asked for unemployment subsidy for those days: "They don't stop your mortgage for that period, and how are you going to pay it with 700 Euros?"Cojocaru is from Romania. When his father died, he had to go back there for a few days, and they did not pay him a single day.

Raul Resmella: "It was claustrophobic when I began, I went home and thought 'Do I really have to go back into that hole?'"

With all the evidence plain to see, the inspector finally took a decision: some of the workers had taken no holidays in four years, nor been paid for them, and this meant between 300 and 400 Euros for them for each year. "Norms have been contravened systematically in the cases we have examined", according to the report. According to the Gipuzkoa ELA representative,Igor San Jose, however, those conclusions are "wrong and unbelievable", the situation actually being far worse and affecting the workers far more.

Angel Toña, the Basque Government's Employment minister, was asked for explanations in the Basque Parliament about the labour irregularities on the High Speed Railway construction. He said that his department had made 103 visits to the works on the railway: "Nobody is looking the other way, and less still the work inspectors."

The workers' prefab hut

What people say from far-off armchairs is worth next to nothing when feet get stuck into the mud. There is no need for a hundred or two hundred visits: a single visit is enough to see that norms are being contravened at large-scale public works. "They pay overtime at 7 Euros, when they do actually pay us", an experienced man told us at the beginning; his face is lined after working more than 40 years in the construction industry. We are between Hernani and Astigarraga, going along an improvised cement path of the sub-world of High Speed Railway construction.

Until recently, the workers employed by Encofrados y Puentes de Castilla S.L., from Salamanca, were only paid half of what had been agreed. They are working for Ulma cooperative, from Arrasate, which supplies materials for building bridges to Ergobia Hiru Lan (Moyua, Balzola and Azvi), a temporary union of companies. So they are subcontracted by a subcontracted cooperative.

Structural workers on the High Speed Railway works at Hernani. After ARGIA reported on the precariousness of their situation, the company started complying with Gipuzkoa construction sector norms.

We stepped into the prefab hut the workers have lunch in and they told us how they are: they have no holidays or expenses, no overtime salaries, they work 10 hours a day, and sometimes work weekends too for 80 Euros: “What we spend at meal times –says another–, and thank you!, if you want to stay here”, before taking a long swig from a can of Coca-Cola.

They have large thermal bags out on the table, most of them have come from Cáceres (Spain), they spend the nights sharing a house in Hernani and the days together at work. Every week they start in the early hours, drive 700 kilometres, and then start work without time to leave their bags at home. They need coffee and sugar to get through the hours. "We laugh so as not to cry", one of them –who has spent 20 years with the company– tells us.  Many of us have no entitlement to unemployment benefit and we're only here to get that right. Then they'll say there's a lot of work around, ok, but at what price? Do I need to have black skin to be a slave?"

"Is that clear? The inspection doesn't do this, does it?", Igor San Jose asked us at the end. We have been to another point of the High Speed Rail works in Gipuzkoa and, after talking with a worker from another company, we have seen that the construction norms are not complied with there either.

ELA's Igor San Jose with one of the workers at Hernani; in 2011 the trades unions obtained permission to go to the High Speed Railway works, and they have reported on many cases of exploitation since then.

We exposed this exploitation in the ARGIA blog Zuloan in February in a piece of research carried out along with Manu Robles-Arangiz institute. After that, having been obliged to by the evidence and testimonies which ELA had presented, the subcontractor admitted that he was not complying with the Gipuzkoa agreements, and made a commitment to do so.

This magazine has seen that the last month's salary rose by 40% for the workers; the trades union is following the case, and wants to calculate the average overtime payment which workers receive because it would not be the first time the company fails to meet its commitments. The workers, while smiling, are also obviously worried: "We're very clear about it: when we finish here, they'll kick us out", they say, with the threat of unemployment over them. Now most of them have been taken to the Aduna area to make Antsibar bridge between Zizurkil and Andoain, at least until they know whether they are going to continue with the work at Hernani or not. But that is something which the temporary union of companies will decide: they have the frying-pan by the handle with regard to the High Speed Railway works.

Concern in the building sector

Temporary unions of companies are very common in civil engineering works, amongst other things to reduce costs. That practice has completely destroyed working conditions in the construction sector: "People from Galicia come here because people from Portugal have gone to work in Galicia, and people from Brazil go to Portugal… There's always a lot of movement", says San Jose.

Juanma Diaz, from Errenteria, was employed by an engineering firm to work on the High Speed Railway section between Zizurkil and Andoain for 800 Euros until he stood up to the deputy manager demanding that he receive his pay.

It is a bitter situation, even more so if we realise that in all the sections of the the Basque Y works one of the two or three companies making up the temporary unions is a Spanish multinational (see the graph); all of those sections were assigned when Patxi Lopez was president.

Juanma Díaz: "I was the topographer's assistant, marking things, but without safety conditions; when there were storms, we were like lightning conductors out there. And that was at the start of the works; once we went into the tunnel, well, you know…"

Juanma Díaz knows a lot about the consequences those companies bring with them: "My father used to say to me: 'Get out of there, and they can get lost!'" His father was an iron worker, and he has followed him into the construction sector after studying for the trade. He worked at the Aduna section of the High Speed Railway in bad conditions, until, fed up of not being paid, he sat down on the floor in front of the people in charge of the temporary union of companies: "I told the works' deputy manager what I had to, and they decided that they had to get rid of me."

From the start he worked almost alone on the site, employed by a small engineering firm. Díaz got paid 800 Euros and was used a "the odd-job boy": "I was the topographer's assistant, marking things, but without safety conditions; when there were storms, we were like lightning conductors out there," the man from Errenteria explained to us pointing at the complicated countryside around Antsibar stream on the path to Zizurkil. "And that was at the start of the works; once we went into the tunnel, well, you know…"

Subcontracting and precariousness often lead to accidents at the workplace. At least seven people have died on the High Speed Railway works this year. And all of that human cost in exchange for what? Or, to put the question another way, would it be possible to build the High Speed Railway at the same price, and in the same time, without exploitation?

The section of the railway between Zizurkil and Andoain is being built by the Aduna temporary union of companies.

Along with the ELA officer, we went down the valley from the Zizurkil-Andoain section to talk to the people in charge of the Aduna temporary union of companies. We told them about the situation of the people from Cáceres, their travelling at night and the danger which that involves: "But then you aren't talking about safety measures," the manager brusquely cut us off: "Let's say they have strange habits."

 

This article was translated by 11itzulpen; you can see the original in Basque here.

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