The key characteristic of the building industry before the second world war separating it from many other industries, including manufacturing, was adherence to the time-based wage. The construction wage system changed in the post-war period, however, as bonus, or incentive payments, became an increasingly important part of a construction worker’s wage, following its incorporation into the national wage agreements in 1940 and its permanent retention in 1947. Some occupations and some sites continued to operate a slightly higher hourly rate, with no bonus, but on many sites, and among many construction occupations, the bonus became a critical issue.
Different types of bonus system operated, ranging from site bonuses to collective bonus to individual bonus. Collective or site bonuses were often seen by workers as more conducive to site solidarity, whilst individual bonuses could be divisive. From the employers’ perspective, bonus was believed to be a means of: exerting more control over the labour process; increasing productivity; and recruiting skilled labour—an important consideration given that this was a period of boom in the construction industry, which led to shortages of certain types skilled workers in certain areas. In practice, however, bonus targets were often arbitrary and were a key factor in the instability of the wage system. Not surprisingly, they lay at the heart of many industrial disputes in the industry during these decades.
In this clip, Bob Hooper recalls the bonus system that operated for bricklayers in Stevenage during the 1950s and 1960s.
Our research shows the importance of bonus to the wages of construction workers. Many of the ex-workers we interviewed spoke in detail about the variety of bonus systems that were in operation, the opportunities they sometimes created for a high wage and the problems they often caused. Some, like the Stevenage bricklayers, also showed their solidarity with fellow-workers by supporting and operating systems that offered an equal rate of bonus to the labourers they worked beside, and on whom they were dependent.
Barbican workers marching in support of pay claim, Morning Star, 19 November, 1968.