What We All Suspected About the Construction Industry…

July 16, 2009

Yep, the British construction industry – which formed the “backbone” of the recent boom, got fat off exploiting low paid labour. It did so, not through the workings of an efficient labour market, or revolutionary efficiency savings, but by organizing a massive black listing system that excluded troublesome workers. Of course, one major fillip to the bosses was also the ready pool of cheap Eastern European labour, which they drew on, resulting in further pay decreases and labour abuses.

In the venerable surroundings of Knutsford Crown Court, we have learned about how a private investigator named Ian Kerr, a Droitwich native, ran a database containing over 3,200 names. As the Guardian reports:

…firms allegedly paid Kerr to check his files for details of each worker’s trade union activities and conduct at work. The files were said to contain warnings about workers such as “ex-shop steward, definite problems, no go”, and “poor time-keeper, will cause trouble, strong trade union”.

Kerr worked for a group called the Consulting Association, whose bland name concealed its sinister purpose, and which was funded by “a number of leading construction companies throughout the country.”

According to Kerr’s defense, the CA was not an enterprising outfit which worked on the fringes of the construction industry. As Jamie Strong told the court, “most of the information on the blacklist was provided by the construction firms to share with other companies in the industry” while Kerr formed a “central point of contact” who “facilitated the exchange of information.”

In other words, Kerr provided deniability for some of the UK’s largest firms, who were blacklisting trade union members for their political activities.

In return, Kerr was paid almost £500,000 between 2004 and 2009, but had been working with CA for 15 years, investigating workers and sharing information with prospective employers.

What’s particularly disgusting is the fact that several of these giant firms have intimate connections to New “Labour.” Amec, for example, which is in the running to build one or more new nuclear power stations, counts ex-Energy Minister Brian Wilson as a board member. Richard Caborn, who served as Trade Minister under Tony Blair ha s also taken on the role of director of a “nuclear alliance” formed to lobby for nuclear power, and funded by Amec.

Balfour Beatty have long worked hand in glove with New Labour as well. As Corporate Watch put it in 2000:

In recent years Balfour Beatty has transformed itself into one of ‘new’ Labour’s favourite companies. One of its executives, Martin Print, was seconded to the Department of Trade and Industry’s ‘innovation unit’ as soon as Labour won the general election. Two other Balfour Beatty staff, Colin Ostler and Alastair Kennedy, have accompanied construction minister Nick Raynsford on jaunts to Jordan, Egypt and the Philippines.

In 2006, the existence of wide ranging blacklists was confirmed when a Balfour Beatty employee sued the firm for wrongful dismissal. Alan Wainwright, who worked as a director at BB subsidiary Haden Young was forced out after complaining about the lists, which he then produced and, according to the Socialist Worker, “include[d] the names and national insurance numbers of 1,087 electricians who worked on the Jubilee Line Extension Project, the Balfour Kilpatrick Royal Opera House Project and the Balfour Kilpatrick Pfizer Project in Sandwich, Kent.”

The effects of blacklisting can be severe. One worker interviewed by the Socialist Worker took part in strikes on the jubilee extension line project in 1998 and 1999. He then endured 16 months without work as an electrician, despite 250 applications for work.

As George Guy, regional secretary for the construction workers’ union Ucatt told the BBC, “Some of our members were out of work for years because of this list…They were forced to live in poverty, unable to provide for their families and they had no idea why.”

For inflicting misery like that, and restricting the rights of construction workers, Kerr has been fined a measly £5,000 while the major construction firms have, of course, got away completely scot-free.

As the industry website Building.co.uk puts it, “ The size of the fine will come as a surprise to many, who were expecting a harsher punishment. In May, magistrates decided against sentencing Kerr, insisting that the maximum fine of £5,000 they could impose was “wholly inadequate.”

According to Computerweekly.com, the clemency of the court was secured after “judge Stephen Clarke heard he had few assets and only a small pension.” That’s despite Kerr raking in hundreds of thousands of pounds from construction firms and, allegedly, earning 34,000 a year from his construction “consultancy” alone.

The construction industry is being unmasked as one of Britain’s most abusive  sectors, ever ready to clamp down on workers rights and pay, although happy to exploit migrants and cosy up to ministers in order to promote their pet (and extremely profitable) projects.

Perhaps mindful of the cases currently underway and growing discontent at industry practices, the government recently announced a “consultation” on the issue of blacklisting. This is the height of hypocrisy. Lord Mandelson, of all people, told the press earlier this month that blacklisting union members was “totally unacceptable.”

According to the Independent, the proposals on the table “include making it unlawful for organisations to refuse employment or sack individuals if they were on a blacklist and allowing workers to seek compensation.”

It’s scandalous that blacklisting isn’t illegal in the UK in 2009 – a reflection of how low New Labour have sunk, in moral terms, since taking office. But Mandelson shows no desire to give greater powers to government bodies to actively investigate the major construction firms and to uncover the extent of blacklisting. Our knowledge, though shocking, is incomplete, being based on whistleblowers like Alan Wainwright and prosecutions of individual “consultants” like Kerr. The problem undoubtedly goes deeper, but we will have to fight hard to get any nearer to the truth with people so close to the guiltiest companies in government.

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