Blacklisting workers in the construction industry
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
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
Diamond M & E Services
Dudley Bower & Co Ltd – Ex Member
Emcor (Drake & Scull) – ‘Ex Ref’
G Wimpey Ltd – Ex Member
John Mowlem Ltd -Ex Member
Laing O’Rourk (Laing Ltd)
Lovell Construction (UK) Ltd – Ex Member
Miller Construction Limited – Ex Member
Morrison Construction Group – Ex Member
N G Bailey
Shepherd Engineering Services
Sias Building Services
Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd
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.