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UK ‘Blacklist’ Investigation Not Over

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

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Months after contractors agreed to pay millions in settlements related to the case, the U.K. government is reopening the file on the alleged blacklisting of thousands of construction workers based on political views and union activities, suggesting the practice may still be taking place.

Blacklist
© iStock.com / Lambros Kazan

A 3,200-name "blacklist" database of U.K. construction workers was shut down after a 2009 investigation, but some are concerned that the blacklisting practice ran deeper than one business.

The Guardian reported Sunday (Dec. 4) that Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has ordered staff to actively keep a watch on contractors to ensure that the practice of blacklisting in the construction industry has ceased. It’s the first indication that the government has been taking action on the matter since the last lawsuits related to it were settled in May.

'Do Not Touch'

It was the Information Commission, which enforces rules regarding openness in government and privacy rights for individuals, that first investigated the allegations that major contractors in the U.K. were keeping a list of individuals whom they deemed to be unfit to employ, largely due to union, safety or environmental activism on the workers’ parts. The investigation came on the heels of a 2008 report on the topic by The Guardian.

According to the investigation, published in 2009, an organization called the Consulting Assocation, run by Ian Kerr, kept the list, with notes and details on workers and their families, and sold the information to employers. Nearly 40 major contractors in the country were sued by hundreds of workers for damages incurred when the workers were unable to find work because of their inclusion on list.

London construction
© iStock.com / _ultraforma_

In 2009, the Information Commission investigated the allegations that major contractors in the U.K. were keeping a list of individuals whom they deemed to be unfit to employ, largely due to union, safety or environmental activism on the workers’ parts.

The list was said to have dated back to the 1980s, and Kerr, acting as a private detective, was alleged to have gotten information on union activities from security reports and possibly even police sources. Prior to being renamed, Kerr’s organization had been called the Economic League. The Consulting Association list reportedly was a database of 3,200 names, with notes like, "will cause trouble" and "do not touch!"

Apology, Settlements

In October 2015, facing the lawsuits, eight of the country’s largest contractors issued an apology for breaches of confidence related to the blacklist case. Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Costain, Kier, Laing O’Rourke, Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska UK and VINCI all admitted to receiving blacklist information, though during the case, they disputed the effect that the list had on workers.

In the end, those contractors and dozens more settled numerous suits, including a 400-worker class action that settled in May.

Ongoing Concerns

Recently The York Press reported on one retiree who was part of the final, 256-worker settlement. Patrick O’Donnell said he was awarded £7,000 (about $9,000) as part of the suit, and now wants his name “taken off the list.”

O’Donnell told the newspaper he believes he was blacklisted because he spoke up about safety concerns related to high-voltage lines used below ground at a gas storage facility where he worked in the 1980s. He said he believes the blacklist cost him work on the Channel Tunnel construction project and other jobs in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

The Consulting Association list was in theory removed from use when the Information Commission shut the organization down in 2009, and Kerr himself died of a heart attack weeks after testifying on the topic in 2012. But some are concerned that the blacklisting practice ran deeper than one business, and labor leaders told The Guardian they would welcome further investigation.

“We have always called for greater rigour by the ICO alongside a public inquiry, and for blacklisting to become a criminal offence punishable by prison and unlimited fines,” said Justin Bowden, national secretary of GMB, one of the U.K.’s largest unions.

   

Tagged categories: Construction; Contractors; Ethics; Labor; Laws and litigation; Unions

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