So there it was, splashed in banner headlines across a national newspaper just before Christmas: Now we’re importing brickies on £1,000 a week! Swiftly followed by a radio conversation debating the rights and wrongs of hiring Portuguese workers to work on British sites.
This was swiftly followed by other stories... a building services company in Darlington saying it had turned away ‘lucrative’ contracts because of a shortage of bricklayers who could earn ‘significantly more’ than £1,000 a week if only they were available... an item in The Guardian quoting the CEO of Barrett, who agreed brickies can earn £1,000 a week gross, ‘depending on weather and number of days worked’... and when the story went beyond Britain, The International Business Times doubled the big number and claimed bricklayers could earn ‘£100,000 a year, as the UK’s building sector booms’...
Here’s what’s really happening:
I have no reason to disbelieve that in isolated sites as far north as Darlington, price work bricklayers can earn £1,000 per week. And of course, inside the M25 you need to earn that kind of money to meet a reasonable standard of living.
The certainty, however, is that in the North of England – and everywhere else – the key to earning £1,000 per week is the words ‘price work’. And when you take an informed look behind the headlines the £1,000-a-week brickie is nothing new.
Six years of earning less and less (which didn’t hit the headlines)
In the months and years that followed, as the downturn began to bite and the industry tipped 100,000 tradesmen out of work, bricklayers’ earnings went steadily down... and down... and down...
Bricklayers, after all, are the barometer of our industry. Which means those who were first to suffer from lower pay rates in recession are amongst the first to reap the benefits in recovery.
Now the country is – hopefully – emerging into a sustained stronger economy, the balance between the supply and demand of labour may have reached a tipping point:
Fingers crossed that it won’t be too long before all freelance builders who have managed to keep themselves afloat are able to command a level of earnings they have not enjoyed during the six long years that their industry has been in deep recession.
And finally, if and when average earnings for price work brickies climb to £1,000 a week, you can be sure the UK economy has entered a new era of prosperity, when subbies who are eager to put in long hours are appropriately rewarded for their skills and their work ethic. I look forward to that time.