Probe exposes firms’ blacklist scandal

By James Tweedie |

THE Information Commissioner’s Office revealed shocking evidence on Friday of “rampant” blacklisting of workers in the construction industry.

An eight-month investigation by the office has revealed that major construction firms broke data protection laws by paying for information on their employees.  

Deputy Information Commissioner David Smith said that details of around 3,000 workers were held by shadowy blacklisting firm the Consulting Association in paper files and a card index database.

Up to 40 construction companies had sent the company lists of people that they were considering hiring to work on building sites. They would then receive details from the files over the phone.

The documents contained descriptions such as “ex-shop steward, definite problems” and “Irish ex-army, bad egg,” while others related to workers who had raised concerns over health and safety issues on sites, such as asbestos removal.

On February 23, members of the authority raided the Droitwich offices of the firm, which was run by Ian Kerr. Mr Kerr later ceased trading and has vacated his business address.

Mr Smith explained: “We are prosecuting the owner of this business, the Consulting Association, because he should have been registered with our office and he wasn’t and that is a criminal offence.”

He warned that the company’s clients would also be investigated and put on notice that, if they got involved in this “illegal trade” again, they would be prosecuted.

“What’s so disappointing about this case is that we have got most of the major names in the construction industry there,” Mr Smith.

“They must have known that they were doing wrong. If not, why run this database underground? It has been going for 15 years.”

Construction union UCATT highlighted claims that Mr Kerr was formerly employed by the Economic League, a controversial vetting agency which compiled lists of thousands of people whom it considered “subversives” from 1919 to 1993.

The revelation of widespread blacklisting has huge implications for construction safety, said the union.

It added that its members and safety representatives have been victimised and dismissed after complaining and blowing the whistle on dangerous sites.

The government had initially intended to make blacklisting illegal as part of the 1999 Employment Relations Act. But the regulations were never introduced on the grounds that the government believed that blacklisting no longer existed.

However, testimony given by construction workers to the Morning Star on Friday blew the lid off that argument, suggesting a continuity of the practice from the 1980s to the present day.

UCATT general secretary Alan Ritchie said: “Our members know from bitter experience of being refused work that blacklisting exists in construction.

“However, the extent of the practice and the fact that most of the major companies in construction are involved in the practice is truly shocking.”

Labour MP John McDonnell added: “This latest expose of blacklisting demonstrates that blacklisting is still rampant in some industries. The government must act swiftly now to outlaw blacklisting once and for all.

“It is widely suspected that the government caved in under pressure from employers’ organisations when I raised this issue last time in Parliament.”

Were they blacklisted?

UNITE member Steve Kelly was an electrician on the Jubilee Line extension project for four years.

As an AEEU shop steward, he was involved in various disputes including unofficial industrial action over pay and conditions and poor health and safety standards.

He was unable to get work in construction for a year and was forced to take building maintenance work for the next six years.

In 2007, he returned to the construction industry and, in his first six months, he was sacked from eight different jobs.

Mr Kelly said: “They told me that they had run out of work, but that was rubbish. But when you’re on bogus self-employment you have no rights whatsoever to an unfair dismissal hearing.”

UCATT member Terry Renshaw was one of the famous 1972 Shrewsbury construction pickets.

In 1986, he got a job with painting contractor Bagnalls of Ellesmere Port, which had a contract with oil giant Shell’s Stanlow refinery.

But, on his first day, immediately after leaving his mandatory safety induction, he found Bagnall’s foreman waiting for him.

Mr Renshaw recalled: “He told me I had to leave the site.

“To me, that was a clear indication that Shell had checked up on me while I was doing my induction and linked me to the Shrewsbury pickets.

“We always knew that there was a blacklist operating because employers would ask for all your personal details and then tell you that there were no vacancies.”