Blacklisting workers in the construction industry

3 min read

Trade union members and other ‘troublemakers’ in the UK have been blacklisted by employers using the services of the Economic League UK (between 1918 and 1993) and the Consulting Association (between 1993 and 2009), it has transpired. A substantial database of construction workers, accessed by large corporations in order to deny ‘militant workers’ work on building sites, has been discovered recently by an official investigation.

The Economic League was established in 1918 by rich businessmen who wished to suppress the class struggle. The organisation eventually folded when it came under pressure for holding incorrect information about workers – not for the more fundamental issue of blacklisting, which infringes civil rights as it prevents ‘voluntary transactions’ between people. This is basically a method of choosing workers who will be the least likely to demand their rights at work and to highlight how companies are mistreating their employees. This is particularly important for a project like the London 2012 Olympics, which requires workers to work overtime and in stressful situations and is being conducted solely in the interests of multinationals and other corporations. The Consulting Association took over this role until it was closed down in Spring 2009.

The British construction industry has recently been the focus of the largest investigation into fraud and corruption ever carried out by the Office of Fair Trading. The industry denied the existence of a construction employee blacklist. Blacklisting, however, is endemic and recently the government discovered a substantial database containing the names of over 3,000 construction workers, stretching back over 30 years, which was accessed by large corporations in order to deny ‘militant workers’ work on building sites.

Companies, including major names like Balfour Beatty, Laing O’Rouke and Sir Robert McAlpine, are alleged to have bought the personal details of workers. The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) carried out a raid which confirmed that Laing O’Rourke was paying Ian Kerr, an ex-Special Branch officer who ran the Consulting Association. Laing O’Rourke is a member of the CLM consortium that won the contract to be the ‘delivery partner’ overseeing all the Olympic construction contracts.

It is believed that more than 40 companies paid an annual subscription of £3,000 to Kerr, in addition to a fixed fee for each name they wanted investigated. After the raid, most of the companies issued ‘no comment’ statements. The subscription-paying companies would send Kerr information about workers who stood up to managers so that he could pool the information for future dissemination. The reports compiled by Kerr read like a hit list, with workers being denounced in terms that leave prospective employers in little doubt. Examples include: “ex shop steward”, “communist party”, “orchestrated strike action”, “UCATT very bad news”, “Poor time keeper will cause trouble strong TU.”

In 1999, the government did a U-turn over the banning of employers’ blacklists when they argued that the lack of proof concerning the existence of such lists meant “there was no hard evidence that blacklisting was occurring.” The government was strongly criticised for passing this law making blacklisting illegal but then deciding not to take the last step to enforce the law.

Blacklisting re-emerged as a political issue in March 2009 when Information Commissioner Richard Thomas closed down the Consulting Association. Following the recent discovery, as well as and pressure from trade unions and 100 Labour MPs, the government is now supposedly planning to outlaw the use of covert blacklists.

The ICO is now running a service for people to check whether information about them was held in the database. The service will be running until 1st September 2009, after which the database will be securely disposed of. ICO is also taking legal action against the Consulting Association. The Regulatory Action Division is currently in the process of contacting each of the companies involved to establish the full extent of their involvement. The companies that are known to have used the Consulting Association include:

Amec Building Ltd

Amec Construction Ltd

Amec Facilities Ltd

Amec Ind Div

Amec Process & Energy Ltd

Amey Construction – Ex Member

B Sunley & Sons – Ex Member

Balfour Beatty

Balfour Kilpatrick

Ballast (Wiltshire) PLc – Ex Member

Bam Construction (HBC Construction)

Bam Nuttall (Edmund Nutall Ltd)

C B & I

Cleveland Bridge UK Ltd

Costain UK Ltd

Crown House Technologies

(Carillion/Tarmac Const)

Diamond M & E Services

Dudley Bower & Co Ltd – Ex Member

Emcor (Drake & Scull) – ‘Ex Ref’

Emcor Rail

G Wimpey Ltd – Ex Member

Haden Young

Kier Ltd

John Mowlem Ltd -Ex Member

Laing O’Rourk (Laing Ltd)

Lovell Construction (UK) Ltd – Ex Member

Miller Construction Limited – Ex Member

Morgan Ashurst

Morgan Est

Morrison Construction Group – Ex Member

N G Bailey

Shepherd Engineering Services

Sias Building Services

Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd

Skanska (Kaverna/Trafalgar

House Plc)

SPIE (Matthew Hall) – Ex Member

Taylor Woodrow Construction Ltd – Ex Member

Turriff Construction Ltd –Ex Member

Tysons Contractors – Ex Member

Walter Llewellyn & Sons Ltd – Ex Member

Whessoe Oil & Gas

Willmott Dixon – Ex Member

Vinci PLC (Norwest Holst Group).

It is a step forward that the government is finally taking action against these practices but we shall wait and see how significant this action will be on the ground. It is likely, however, that blacklisting will remain in some form or another. With a project like the 2012 Olympics, where there is so much corporate money at stake and so many other objectionable practices occurring in the name of regeneration, including the eviction of allotment holders and council tenants, it seems unlikely that the government would choose, or even be able, to enforce ethical work practices.