Unions and campaigners have urged the government to initiate a major inquiry into blacklisting, on a par with the Leveson probe into phone hacking.
The calls for a formal inquiry came ahead of a 23 January debate in parliament, the culmination of a remarkable campaign by the grassroots Blacklist Support Group. Formed by workers blacklisted for their union and safety activities, the group has won support of unions, safety and human rights organisations. Last year it was shortlisted for a Liberty human rights campaign of the year award.
The campaign is now being supported by Labour, with shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna leading this week’s House of Commons debate. He told MPs: “I believe that what happened in the past needs to be investigated”. He said it was an “utter disgrace” none of the firms involved had apologised, adding they should “consider setting up a fund into which they could all pay, which could immediately begin to compensate those workers who were blacklisted for the immense loss they have suffered.”
Prime minister David Cameron condemned the “completely unacceptable practice.” His business secretary Vince Cable, however, resisted calls for an inquiry. He said: “If it is actually going on, it is a serious matter and it needs investigation. I, of course, will want to see it properly investigated, but we want some evidence.”
Unions maintain there is plenty of evidence, including admissions from firms that blacklisting occurred on several recent and some ongoing projects, including the London Olympics.
The grassroots Blacklist Support Group told the business secretary to follow the money, with sharp hikes in payments from construction firms to covert blacklister The Consulting Association coinciding with recruitment drives for major, largely public-financed, jobs including the London Olympics build and the ongoing Crossrail job, Europe’s largest construction project. Crossrail this week said it rejected allegations of blacklisting.
But Sir Robert McAlpine director Cullum McAlpine followed Balfour Beatty and admitted to MPs at a 22 January select committee hearing his firm had used the services of The Consulting Association to vet Olympics site workers.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “This is a scandal on the scale of phone hacking, except it is the lives of thousands of ordinary construction workers which have been ruined. There should be a full and proper inquiry.” He added: “Lives have been ruined and families have been torn apart just because workers have raised safety concerns in Britain’s most dangerous industry or just because they exercised their human rights to belong to a trade union.”
Steve Murphy, general secretary of UCATT, said: “Balfour Beatty’s admission that blacklisting occurred on the Olympics is significant. However, this is far from the end of the story. We need a full investigation into the true level of blacklisting on the Olympics and other public projects. To find out who was involved and who knew about it. Blacklisted workers deserve the truth and they deserve justice.”
The Blacklist Support Group, the organisation that first brought the activities of covert blacklisting organisation The Consulting Association to public attention, said the cash trail confirmed major firms were blacklisting workers.
A statement from the group after the Commons debate said: “Between 2008-2009 both Skanska and Sir Robert McAlpine were each invoiced in excess of £28,000 by The Consulting Association for checking names of prospective workers against the illegal blacklist.
“These are the highest ever invoices paid by any firm subscribing to The Consulting Association blacklist. This coincides exactly with the mass recruitment stage of the Olympics project and at £2.20 per check, this equates to over 25,000 workers being checked against the blacklist by the two Olympics builders. From 2006-2009, David Cochrane, Head of Human Resources at Sir Robert McAlpine Limited, was the chairman of The Consulting Association, a post that Stephen Quant, Director of Industrial Relations for Skanska at the time of the Olympics project had previously held.
“If this was not because of the Olympics, can Sir Robert McAlpine and Skanska please inform us what other major construction jobs they were undertaking during the same period that needed so many blacklist name checks? The companies explanations are completely implausible and we look forward to when they face scrutiny in the High Court and at the parliamentary investigation into blacklisting.”
The BSG statement concluded: “Workers were sacked from the Olympics and others were denied employment because of the blacklist – there were major protests that closed down the main entrances to the project but were ignored by the mainstream media at the time. Be under no doubt, blacklisted workers intend to continue our fight for justice until these multinational firms face justice, apologise and compensate us for this systematic human rights abuse.”
- Selected related media coverage: BBC News Online. ITV News. Financial Times. The Guardian. The Scotsman. The Herald.