For decades, workers have claimed they’ve struggled to find work on major construction projects. Others have been handed their cards after raising safety concerns. They say they’ve been forced out of the trade or left picking up bits of low paid casual work.
The companies meanwhile were adamant. There never was a blacklist and even if there was, we didn’t use it and it doesn’t exist anymore anyway.
The first official confirmation this was a fabrication came in 2009, when the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) raided the offices of The Consulting Association (Hazards 107). They found a coded paper trail showing 44 major firms had used its covert blacklisting service.
The association wasn’t just providing a pay-per-go blacklisting service, it was an organisation created and controlled by the industry. And 90 per cent of the information dispensed by the association was provided directly by the firms themselves.
Still, the companies either stayed silent or said blacklisting was an historic practice and the current management set up was untainted. Unions and the grassroots Blacklist Support Group (BSG), though, were certain of their ground.
BSG founders Dave Smith, Steve Acheson and Colin Trousdale had seen careers in construction abruptly curtailed when they raised site safety concerns. They say many others who had suffered similar hardship – not troublemakers, just workers who did not stay silent when they saw health threats on site.
Trousdale, a UNITE member from Manchester, told a 27 August 2012 protest outside Balfour Beatty’s Glasgow HQ that in 2008 he had taken an employment tribunal against the firm.
The electrician alleged the company’s human resources director, Gerry Harvey – a member of Balfour Beatty’s nine strong ‘executive leadership scheme’ - had sent a letter to the court asserting “there is no blacklist, we are not blacklisting you, you are paranoid.”
But in 2009 electrician obtained his The Consulting Association blacklist file. It contained information supplied by the firm, including details of the employment tribunal and his safety activities. “Perjury is a crime,” Trousdale said. “Being a union rep is not. We need to see these people in court. We need to see these people in prison.”
CROSSRAIL PICKET Crossrail denies using a blacklist. Unite disagrees. Shop steward Frank Morris and safety rep Rodney Valentine (in denim shirt) both lost their jobs on Crossrail because of their union activity. And convicted blacklister Ian Kerr admitted firms working on Europe’s biggest construction project were users of his services. [more]
Sir Robert McAlpine, the construction giant described by site union UCATT as “the second biggest blacklister”, was principal contractor on the Olympics. On 7 November 2012, Olympics Development Authority (ODA) chief executive Dennis Hone told the London Assembly there was no evidence that blacklisting occurred on the Olympics and that Olympic contractors had given assurances that they were not involved in blacklisting.
UCATT, though, had strong evidence implicating Sir Robert McAlpine, including a spike in its requests for checks by The Consulting Association from July to September 2008.This coincided with large-scale recruitment on the Olympic Stadium. During this time the company spent £12,839.20 on a total of 5,836 blacklist checks - “an incredible 63 per day,” said the union.
Concerns also circulated about blacklisting on £15bn Crossrail project across the south-east of England, and were met with similar denials from the firms involved. It was the same pattern on other major jobs; site workers said there was a blacklist, companies said there was not.
The industry’s defence though was fragile. Many had been named in 2009 by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which showed payments to The Consulting Association from all the major industry players, including AMEC, Costain, Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska and Laing O’Rourke.
By 2012, the industry’s defence was unravelling. Hearings at the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Select Committee gave unions and victimised workers a chance to raise their concerns. They also put the companies on the spot.
It quickly became apparent this was a real problem, and could be a much bigger problem than previously thought.
At a 17 October 2012 evidence session, ICO’s David Clancy admitted it only removed 5 per cent of the The Consulting Association’s files, a blacklist of 3,213 workers.
Select committee chair Ian Davidson said that the ICO's failure to examine all the material had left the public in “complete ignorance” and could mean that many workers remained unaware that they had been blacklisted. He said he was surprised the ICO stopped at that point, adding he did not understand why it had not gone through all the other documentation to establish whether it was relevant.
CARILLION GUILTY Carillion Construction Ltd has been fined £130,000 plus £52,500 costs after self-employed scaffolder Russell Samuel, 40, died two days after a 19 metre fall at a Swansea building site. GMB members held a ‘Grim Reaper’ protest outside the November 2012 hearing. GMB says Carillion blacklisted 224 construction workers, including union safety reps. [more]
Ian Kerr, who headed The Consulting Association and who died just two weeks after appearing before the committee, told MPs construction firms working on landmark projects including the London Olympics, Wembley Stadium and the Millennium Dome were among those who used the association’s services.
The organisation, which was shutdown by ICO in 2009, was set up with a £10,000 loan from construction giant Sir Robert McAlpine, he said. The firm also paid Kerr’s fine and legal costs after he was convicted of data protection offences in a prosecution brought by ICO, and covered staff redundancy and other costs. Kerr told MPs: “The fine came through Sir Robert McAlpine on the basis that I put myself at the front, took the flak so they wouldn’t be drawn into all of this.”
Sir Robert McAlpine wasn’t willing to carry the can for the whole industry; other hands were dirty, it indicated. A company statement said: “The Consulting Association was established by a large group of construction companies and Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd was not solely responsible for the establishment or the funding of The Consulting Association.”
Kerr told MPs that Sir Robert McAlpine and Balfour Beatty “and possibly Skanska” had used the vetting services for contracts they had for work on Olympic projects. Kerr added “awful lot of discussion” between Crossrail contractors and the covert blacklister. “Like it or not,” he said, blacklisting “will always be there.”
Construction union UCATT said there must now be a public inquiry into the scandal. UCATT general Steve Murphy said: “There is an urgent need for a public inquiry into the blacklisting scandal, Kerr has cast some light about how information from the police and security forces was obtained and used for blacklisting, but we need the full information, so that blacklisted workers can receive justice.”
But while David Cameron ordered a public inquiry into phone hacking, which largely affected the privacy of celebrities, he rejected out-of-hand a similar blacklisting probe – a process that robbed ordinary workers of their livelihoods and sometimes their lives - saying it was a matter for the police (Hazards 118).
This was after ICO had indicated there was information in the files that “could only be supplied by the police or security forces.”
Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti commented: “One of the big things about phone hacking was that a private investigator was storing up all this personal information, people’s phone numbers and so on and that was used for phone hacking. Something similar happened with The Consulting Association that was storing up the names of people on a blacklist,” she said.
“They were blacklisted because they were trade unionists or they were raising concerns about health and safety; but health and safety on a building site is potentially a life and death matter. There were people whose lives were ruined; they found they couldn’t work in the construction industry for years and years and years.”
After hundreds involved in disputes on London's Jubilee line extension were blacklisted in 2000, at least two who were unable to find work committed suicide. BSG’s Steve Acheson was one of about a dozen blacklisted workers attending the hearing as Kerr gave his evidence. The Manchester electrician, on whom The Consulting Association had a 22-page dossier, said: “The secret files The Consulting Association kept on me were used to unfairly dismiss me on job after job for no more than raising genuine safety issues.”
He has not been able to work in the trade for more than a few weeks ever since. “Those people ruined my life,” Acheson said.
Crossrail in the crosshairs
Flagship public projects such as the £15bn Crossrail network across the south-east provide clear warning signs that blacklisting is not dead. Site union Unite said it has “continuing and serious concerns” about how workers are treated by contractors working on the Crossrail scheme – Europe’s largest construction project. It was speaking out after a House of Commons committee heard in November 2012 that Crossrail contractors involved covert blacklisting organisation The Consulting Association.
In a letter to London Transport Commissioner Peter Hendy, Unite’s Vince Passfield said that Transport for London (TfL) “must act speedily to ensure the project is free from the illegal practice of blacklisting.” He added: “Imagine Unite's horror in hearing that Crossrail contractors met with The Consulting Association, the organisation that compiled a blacklist of mainly construction operatives.”
He said he was “shocked” to have read newspaper reports that a former industrial relations manager working on the project, Ron Barron, had cross-checked job applicants against a blacklist run by The Consulting Association. Passfield said the safety record of the Crossrail project had recently been brought into question. “Trade unions have a valid role and play a central role in supporting health and safety which is so crucial in the construction industry.”
Referring an admission to MPs by convicted blacklister Ian Kerr that Crossrail was big topic of discussion at The Consulting Association, the covert organisation that held files on over 3,200 site workers, BSG added: “The evidence of blacklisting on Crossrail is damning and overwhelming - This is a major systematic breach of human rights by big business subsidised by taxpayers money - when are they going to come clean?”
Concerns about Crossrail increased after a 12 December incident that left an electrician in hospital with 70 per cent burns. The man, who has not been named but who was working for subcontractor Barhale, was seriously injured when he struck a below ground electrical cable on a Holborn site in central London.
Unite national officer, Bernard McAulay said: “There must now be an immediate open and transparent investigation into this serious accident. It is time Crossrail recognises the need to address our serious concerns over health and safety on the project. In the last two months there have been two major incidents.”
Dave Smith, a spokesperson for the Blacklist Support Group, which protested outside the Department for Transport after the incident, commented: “Having sacked safety reps for pointing out the danger of an exposed 12,000 volt live cable at their Westbourne Park site, Crossrail now need to explain how a worker was able to accidently cut through another live cable at their Holborn site. The resulting explosion set him on fire and has left him in hospital with 70 per cent burns.” He added that main contractors Bam, Ferrovial and Kier are in receipt of billions from the public purse for the project and called for “a public enquiry now as to why they are putting their workers' lives at risk.”
Companies sentenced after worker’s fatal fall
A major construction company and a concrete structures firm have been sentenced after a worker died following a fall from height at a Swansea building site. Carillion Construction Ltd and with Febrey Ltd were jointly prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) following the incident at the Meridian Quay apartment development in Swansea on 22 January 2008.
Self-employed father of two Russell Samuel was contracted by Febrey Ltd to work as a scaffolder at the Swansea site. Swansea Crown Court heard he was dismantling a scaffold ladder access platform ready for the installation of the roof and staircase on the fourth floor, when he fell approximately 19 metres to the ground below. He narrowly missed carpenter Raymond Haines, who was working directly below.
Mr Samuel, 40, suffered multiple injuries during his fall, including a fractured skull. He was taken to Morriston Hospital but died two days later on 24 January 2008. The failings of Febrey Ltd director Michael Febrey was found to have had a direct bearing on the events that led to the death of Mr Samuel. He pleaded guilty to a criminal safety offence and will be sentenced at a later date.
Principal contractor Carillion Construction Ltd pleaded guilty to two criminal safety breaches and was fined £130,000 plus £52,500 in costs. Febrey Ltd, which has since gone into liquidation, was fined £85 after admitting two criminal safety offences, although the judge said he would have fined the firm £250,000 before it became insolvent.
The website of Febrey Structures Ltd, a company based at the same address and using the telephone number and web url previously used by Febrey Ltd, notes: “Although Febrey structures is a more recently developed organisation having become a separate entity, within the company are many of the key operational elements and resources that provided the framework to the concrete structures activities of Febrey Ltd.”
GMB members protested outside the hearing. The union alleges Carillion was involved in blacklisting 224 construction workers, including union health and safety reps.
Ahead of a union-initiated legal action, Carillion chief executive Richard Howson apologised for his firm’s part in the scandal. In a 25 October 2012 statement he said: “Carillion is led by strong values and we take our commitment to transparency and openness extremely seriously which is why we are sorry that one of our former subsidiary businesses, Crown House Engineering, used The Consulting Association’s database to reference individuals.
“This was not consistent with the high standards of behaviour that we set for ourselves, based on our core values.”
He added: “We want to make it absolutely clear that Carillion does not condone or engage in blacklisting.”
After noisily protesting their innocence, it seems the biggest names in UK construction were – and some remain - safety blacklisters after all. Hazards looks at a scandal now linked to the Olympics construction project, the massive Crossrail network and all the major site firms.