Working 'on the lump' means no tax paid and no safety regulations. Jonathan Green meets a group of men who labour under no illusions
CRICKLEWOOD Broadway, 5.30am. Fifty scrappily dressed men - most of them Irish, some East European - solicit passing vehicles in a suburban street. A blue Transit van rolls to a halt beside the kerb. The driver, a thick-set, cropped-haired "gangerman", is here to pick "skins", men who will work on his building sites for pounds 15 for a 12-hour day. Those touting for work are recruited "on the lump", no questions asked, no ID required, cash in hand. Sturdy and stained with old concrete, Mickey's boots are his CV: "You'll be picked up for work if you're wearing dirty boots - they show you work hard and that people have used you before."

Scanning faces and boots, the gangerman points at three men. All are in their mid-twenties and grunt nonchalantly as they clamber into the van. It disappears from the busy intersection towards the nearby M1 and A1 slip roads. For Mickey and the rest, the wait continues. Most of the men here are signing on. Their employers range from huge building contractors working on Government funded contracts to back-street cowboys. They all dodge tax, insurance and safety regulations, yet the authorities turn a blind eye.

"We tackle the problem of fraudulent benefit claims on building sites - not places like this," says a man from the DSS. The Inland Revenue, a spokesperson explains, is more concerned with large-scale tax fraud and the trade in stolen tax-exemption certificates around building sites. The police, too, seem unconcerned. "There can be 50 to 100 people there in the morning but we rarely get called out to deal with any trouble," says Sergeant McKiernan of nearby Willesden Green police station. The staff of Conway House, a local hostel whose residents regularly work from Cricklewood, believe that something should be done to stop the illegal trade. "It's prostitution without sex," says one advice worker. "Many lives have been ruined by this work and the horror stories go on and on."

Horror stories like the one last September, when labourer Michael Foley was killed after being hit by a dumper truck driven by a man working for McFenn Engineering. The driver, who gave his name on site as John Green had been recruited "on the lump" from Cricklewood Broadway. His real name was Raymond Kent. The tragedy happened while he was working on London Underground's Jubilee Line extension. Incidents like this are no surprise to Tony O'Brien of the Construction Safety Campaign. "Casual labour is epidemic in the industry," he explains. "It's a national disaster and people are being killed all the time. Building contractors build casual labour into their work systems; they are the villains. As a worker you're just a lump of meat to be used and abused. Some of them are in a dreadful state."

Gavin Byrne, a rangy 25-year-old, talks bitterly of his experiences working "on the lump". He has no trade like bricklaying or carpentry, just an able body. "If anything happens on site you have to walk to the hospital," he says. "You're not meant to be working and those who use you are not meant to have picked you up."

Tony, 31, has worked on building sites since arriving in London 10 years ago. "It's a tradition that lads coming over here from Ireland do this but I've had enough," he says. "I've been given a day's work then not been paid or driven back at the end of it. That's happened so many times I've lost count But what you can do?"

Many subcontractors own pubs and will give workers a cheque to be cashed in the bar. It's not uncommon, says Tony, for there to be a charge for cashing the cheque. Often workers on the same job will all use the same name and the cheque will be made out jointly in that name. Now Tony's expectations of wages are so low he says he would work for pounds 2 an hour.

Chris Pond, director of the Low Pay Unit is horrified. "Even pounds 25 a day is a pitiful wage that is half the Council of Europe's decency threshold."

Brendan, 46, is a large man with a pockmarked face and a voice made husky by years of alcohol abuse, cold morning air and cheap cigarettes. A refugee from Belfast's troubles since 1971, he worked as a "skin" (casual labourer) until four years ago, when rheumatism, homelessness, and low pay finally forced him to stop.

"This work has left men like me as confused alcoholics, too sick to get out of doorways," he says. "I had to drink to sedate myself from this existence. It has ruined many Irish men."

By 9am only eight workers have been picked up at Cricklewood. At the last minute Mickey is picked up by a contractor in a black BMW to work on a house renovation. Others are not so lucky. One Bulgarian youth has been here since 5.30am. "I even offered to work for pounds 10 but they weren't interested," he complains in broken English. The 40 or so prospective workers whose wait was futile, start to drift away as the commuter traffic begins to rumble into central London. Pulling up his collar to face a drizzling, overcast day, the youth grins: "Maybe tomorrow we will be lucky, eh?"