The blacklisting scandal – and Labour’s weak response

26th October, 2012 12:00 pm

For decades trade unionists in construction suspected that blacklisting took place. In an industry where workers frequently move sites and change companies, if a worker is repeatedly refused work, suspicions quickly arise.

In March 2009, fears of blacklisting were shown to be entirely justified. The Information Commissioners Office raided the Consulting Association run by Ian Kerr. They found a blacklist which contained over 3,200 names of construction workers. The scale of blacklisting was staggering, 44 construction companies including all the major players were using the Consulting Association’s services. The Consulting Association, charged companies an annual £3,000 subscription and a further £2.20 per membership check. In their final year the Consulting Association invoiced construction companies for £87,747.40 in checks alone.

Once the blacklist was uncovered the fight for justice began. UCATT provided information on how to find out whether workers had been blacklisted. When members were blacklisted we sought to win justice for them. The problem was that in 2009 blacklisting wasn’t illegal. Provisions had been made in the 1999 Employment Relations Act to outlaw blacklisting, but because hard evidence of blacklisting wasn’t then available, those regulations were not enacted. As blacklisting was not illegal the only crime the Consulting Association was deemed to have committed was a failure to have registered as a data controller. Kerr was eventually fined just £5,000 after making a career of blacklisting workers and ruining their lives.

Following the blacklisting scandal the Labour Government came forward with regulations. These regulations are so weak that they will not deter blacklisting. The only recourse for someone who has been blacklisted still remains taking a case to an employment tribunal and financial loss has to be proved. UCATT has constantly argued for the regulations to be strengthened. They necessary changes are:

  • Make blacklisting a criminal offence
  • When a blacklist is discovered all those on it are automatically told.
  • An automatic right to compensation for everyone blacklisted.
  • For the regulations to be widened from the narrow confines of “trade union activities” to the wider “activities associated with trade unions”. Ensuring trade unionists can’t be blacklisted for taking unofficial industrial action, such as a ban on voluntary overtime.

Given the difficulty of proving detriment in an employment tribunal, especially in an industry where job applications are not usually through CVs and interviews, the vast majority of employment tribunal cases have been dismissed. In many cases the main contractors doing the blacklisting were not employing the workers, who were seeking employment via sub-contractors and agencies.

As British courts have failed to provide justice for the blacklist victims, UCATT has taken the campaign to Europe. In 2011 we lodged a test case with the European Court of Human Rights, on behalf of one of our members. The case is simple, that the failure of successive Governments to outlaw blacklisting breached workers’ human rights. This failure breached the European Convention on Human Rights under Article 11 on freedom of association and Article 14 on anti-discrimination. We expect to hear from the ECHR by the end of the year that they have contacted the British Government, the first stage of a long legal process.

Although most employment tribunals brought by blacklist victims failed. Those that did come to court brought highly disturbing information to light. Not only were construction companies systematically blacklisting workers but the police and the security services were also involved in providing and presumably accessing the information. Last week during the Scottish Affairs Select Committee investigation into blacklisting it was also revealed that when the ICO made its original raid on the Consulting Association only 5% of the files present were confiscated. There are serious questions needing to be answered about what information was left behind.

UCATT believes that the Consulting Association was not the only organisation involved in blacklisting and that blacklisting occurs in other industries. To stamp out blacklisting once and for all we urgently need a public inquiry into the whole issue. It is only be bringing everything to light and finding out who was involved, that we can ensure that the disgusting practice is stamped out once and for all.

This week UCATT have launched a postcard campaign for members and construction workers to contact their local MP, asking them to support the campaign and to sign Steve Rotheram’s EDM 609 on Blacklisted Workers. The EDM and the Postcard campaign are calling for both a public inquiry and for blacklisting to become a criminal offence. To request a postcard or to email your MP please click here.

This is a touchstone issue for Labour. Far more should have been done to stamp out blacklisting. Even when the scandal broke in 2009, Labour’s response was weak. Our party needs to learn from its past errors where it lost millions of votes, because workers felt they had been abandoned. By fighting and winning justice for blacklisted workers, Labour will be showing that they are on their side. At UCATT we will not stop campaigning until every blacklisted victim wins justice for the abuse they suffered.

Steve Murphy is General Secretary of UCATT

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