The List that Did Exist

As the famous saying goes

“Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

Despite a mountain of anecdotal evidence, and decades of Government and industry denial, earlier this year it was officially confirmed what many workers (especially in the building trade) have known for years: blacklists do exist. Hard evidence came to light when the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) raided an office in Worcestershire and discovered that most of the major construction companies had been paying for information on over 3,200 workers. Some information was over 30 years old. Comments on the workers included

“ex-shop steward, definite problems. No go”


“Lazy and a trouble-stirrer”

The office was run by a shadowy private detective, Ian Kerr. Kerr had links to the Economic League, an organisation set up in 1919 by industrialists anxious to target militant workers following the Russian Revolution. The league was disbanded in 1993 but Kerr kept up its traditions and has spent the last 15 years compiling a huge database on workers from every part of the country . Companies had sent information to Kerr so it could be pooled with other firms in the construction industry, and once pooled information was then sold to over 40 construction companies, including Amec, Balfour Beatty and Taylor Woodrow. According to documents seized, Kerr billed Sir Robert McAlpine £26,841, £5,951 of which was paid at the time McAlpine started the Olympics project. Individual workers could be checked out for £2.20 a time.

The enemy within

Many of the workers on the blacklist had been sacked for striking, holding “subversive” opinions or for speaking out on health and safety issues. Some who fought to reduce deaths and injuries on sites have found themselves unable to get any future employment in the industry and it seems Union Health and Safety representatives were particularly targetted. Information held included details of trades union activity, employment conduct and personal information including details of relationships. One worker found himself on the list when he refused to scab on the Pfizers dispute. Another was targeted for speaking up in defence of sacked colleagues. Others were named when they raised concerns over health and safety issues, such as asbestos removal, or after being involved in whistle-blowing about illegal practices on dangerous sites.

Labour denials...

The Labour government made much of its opposition to blacklisting. It passed a law banning the practice in 1999, but then, in a U-turn, decided not to take the final step of implementing the law on the grounds that

“there was no hard evidence that blacklisting was occurring.”

As a result blacklisting is still, technically, completely legal. Kerr will be prosecuted under the Data Protection Act and faces a paltry fine of £5,000. Not much of a price to pay for destroying thousands of families’ lives.

...and PFI

Although the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) was the brainchild of the last Conservative Government, it only really came to the fore under Labour, specifically under Gordon Brown’s time as Chancellor. PFI has been a licence for the biggest construction companies to print money, (by forcing public bodies to borrow at a higher rate of interest to get projects built and then making them pay for long term contracts for services they may not even need in future). Thanks to Gordon Brown’s “prudence” public bodies are committed to paying a total of £170 billion to contractors in more than 800 PFI schemes up to 2031-2032. Most of the big construction firms have done very nicely out of it, thank you. Laing O’Rourke describes itself as being

“at the forefront of NHS Procurement initiatives,”

and, as such, has amassed a small fortune from the state. Likewise, Amec make a considerable profit in 2005 through selling off it PFI equity stakes. Traditionally, construction firms would expect returns on between 1.5 and 2% on contracts. With PFI schemes, they’ve been getting between 7.5 and 15%. The big companies have further squeezed profits out of workers by subcontracting. This way they can keep wages low, and force the responsibility for training, sick leave and pension rights onto individual workers themselves. Cost cutting also means fewer workers are trained on the job, resulting in more and more unskilled or semi-skilled workers being employed, in turn increasing the risk of death and injury at work. Given all this its little wonder that workers have fought for better conditions and pay, with disputes breaking out in the Jubilee line extension, the Royal Opera House and Pfizers in Kent, all of which were roundly condemned by Labour. And given its support of the industry, and its naive belief that construction will lead Britain out of the current crisis, its little wonder its had no interest in either implementing anti-blacklist legislation or investigating workers’ claims of victimisation.

Spying Goes On

Media commentators may wring their hands that major industries are involved in such underhand activity, and they may be shocked that such things go on in a democracy, but British workers are amongst the most spied on in the world. Hardly a month goes by without some shocking report of vast amounts of personal data having been lost or misplaced. The chances of being “screened” before employment has greatly increased and a casualised workforce makes it much easier to target people labeled as troublemakers. Surveillance outfits are spreading unchecked. One such, The Action Against Business Crime, has just launched a National Dismissal Register which will hold details of all workers who have been dismissed or have left employment, even if only under investigation for acts of dishonesty. Retailers, local authorities, transport companies, hotels and colleges have all expressed an interest in paying the £4,000 annual fee to join the database. Exposing underhand surveillance and passing laws may sound good, but as long as capitalist exploitation exists so will discrimination and blacklisting of workers.


Revolutionary Perspectives

Journal of the Communist Workers’ Organisation -- Why not subscribe to get the articles whilst they are still current and help the struggle for a society free from exploitation, war and misery? Joint subscriptions to Revolutionary Perspectives (3 issues) and Aurora (our agitational bulletin - 4 issues) are £15 in the UK, €24 in Europe and $30 in the rest of the World.