That’s your lot for September/October. If you know of any new blogs that haven’t featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email or Twitter. Please note I’m looking for blogs that have started within the last 12 months. The new blog round up appears on the first Sunday of every month, and is also cross-posted to A Very Public Sociologist.
That’s your lot for August/September. If you know of any new blogs that haven’t featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email or Twitter. Please note I’m looking for blogs that have started within the last 12 months. The new blog round up appears on the first Sunday of every month, and is also cross-posted to A Very Public Sociologist.
That’s your lot for July/August. If you know of any new blogs that haven’t featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email or Twitter. Please note I’m looking for blogs that have started within the last 12 months. The new blog round up appears on the first Sunday of every month, and is also cross-posted to A Very Public Sociologist.
That’s it for February/March. If you know of any new blogs that haven’t featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email or Twitter. Please note I’m looking for blogs that have started within the last 12 months. The new blog round up is posted on the first Sunday of every month, and is also cross-posted to A Very Public Sociologist.
Yes, I know Far Left Fashion isn’t the most serious of blogs, but who cares? There are far too many po-faces knocking about the left. Well, that’s it for January/February. If you know of any new blogs that haven’t featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email or Twitter. Please note I’m looking for blogs that have started within the last 12 months. The new blog round up is posted on the first Sunday of every month, and is also cross-posted to A Very Public Sociologist.
That’s it for December/January. If you know of any new blogs that haven’t featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email or Twitter. Please note I’m looking for blogs that have started within the last 12 months. The new blog round up is posted on the first Sunday of every month, and is also cross-posted to A Very Public Sociologist.
Class is everything in Britain. It dictates how the British live and when they die, which children succeed and which fail. Above all else, class imposes silence. Counterfeit controversies obsess the media and politics. When presented with a genuine scandal that cries out for punishment and reform, the talking heads and the professional contrarians say nothing.
Readers would not guess from the “national conversation” that the construction industry is sitting on a story as grave in its implications as the phone-hacking affair – graver I will argue. You are unlikely to have heard mention of it for a simple and disreputable reason: the victims are working-class men rather than celebrities. The parallels between what happened in the news and building businesses are almost exact. As in the media, there was a corporate conspiracy. Sir Robert McAlpine, Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Amec, Skanska, Taylor Woodrow and 34 other construction companies behaved like a secret police force monitoring a subject population. The files of their “Consulting Association” – and what a soothingly bland name they chose – refer to construction companies by a code name.
Anonymous site managers supplied details, often false, of alleged troublemakers in the building trade. Some human resources departments then checked job applicants against the Consulting Association’s records, paying £2 per check for the service, and never told the men they rejected why they had banned them for work. In its pomp, the CA was a busy place. Records suggest McAlpine alone spent £28,000 on checks. By the time the Information Commissioner’s officials seized its database, 3,400 workers were on the blacklist.
As with News International, there are reasonable grounds for suspecting police collusion. The files contain accounts of building workers attending demonstrations against the BNP, which are highly unlikely to have come from construction industry managers. “They read like police reconnaissance reports,” said one investigator for the Information Commissioner, who is also a former police officer. As with News International, there is now a mass legal action. Daniel Boffey, our dogged policy editor, reports in today’s news pages that the first of what may be many claims by blacklisted workers has begun. Eighty-six men are suing Sir Robert McAlpine for £17m in lost earnings. By a neat serendipity, McAlpine not only funded the Tory party but also built the Olympic stadium, so the action doesn’t lack topical resonance. Its lawyers will claim blacklisters’ files contained details of the builders’ political views, attitudes towards health and safety, relationships and friendships, which would make a News of the World hack gasp with envious admiration.
At this point, comparison breaks down. Hacking hurt reputations but it did not threaten lives. Blacklisted workers, by contrast, have shared the anger and amazement of the citizens of dictatorships after a revolution. They have gone through files their employers never meant them to see and marvelled at how malicious minds twisted their past to put them on the dole. Like so many other blacklisted men, Dave Smith, a genuine working-class hero and leader of the campaign against the blacklist, wondered why he could never get work. He would turn up to a site with his friends. The foreman would take on his friends but not him. “By 2000, I couldn’t sleep. I was defaulting on the mortgage and the kids were on milk tokens.” On one occasion, Smith protested after an explosion of compressed air in a tunnel blasted a crater in a school playground. If children had been at school, they would have died. But in the files he found that the spy beside him on the job mentioned only his protests, not the threat to lives.
Construction is a trade where men leave for work in the morning and come back in a coffin at night. Even in 2010-2011, in the middle of a recession and with the construction industry on its knees, 50 died in accidents that might have been preventable. There will be many more coffins when and if growth returns. The construction companies could not be clearer that men who try to enforce minimum safety standards are their enemies. The files included formal letters notifying a company that a worker was the official safety rep on a site as evidence against him.
Construction is a casual industry because companies do not want to employ craftsmen full time: 50% are self-employed and most of the rest are agency workers. Even the British law, so negligent about health and welfare of building workers in many respects, recognises the position of safety reps. The files show that the construction industry sees becoming a rep as grounds for banning workers for life. Even those they label as “not a militant” – and there are many – are on the blacklist because at some point they have spoken about dangers at work.
The blacklisting puts conservative protests about “‘elf and safety” and “political correctness gone mad” in their place. The trouble with political correctness in Britain is that it is not nearly mad enough about cowboy multinationals, which regard the lives of casual labourers as dispensable. Steve Murphy, the general secretary of the builders’ union UCATT, says that business’s influence in politics and the media is having an effect. The coalition has commissioned one Ragnar E Löfstedt, an American academic with a laissez-faire bent, to recommend that self-employed building workers, who pose no threat to others, should be exempt from health and safety rules.
The British Labour movement has inspired few novels. One undisputed classic is The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. Robert Tressell’s despairing leftwing hero tries to persuade builders of Mugsborough, a fictionalised Hastings, to embrace socialism. The builders won’t listen. They respect their employers as their “betters”, listen to the advice of religious hypocrites and refuse to fight for their own interests. Tressell’s picture of builders welcoming exploitation is not true now and I am not sure if it was true of Edwardian Hastings. Building workers want and need men who will stand up to employers and protect their safety. Naturally, they do not wish to die.
For almost a decade, construction conglomerates blacklisted those who tried to speak on their behalf. In that same period, scores died and hundreds were maimed. It says much about Britain that the loud voices that boom across our media cannot talk about a scandal that is in front of their eyes.
I spend a lot of time writing, and reading, about conditions in Victorian England. These days I hardly need to open a history book to do it – a newspaper will do almost as well.
Now, as then, we have a government doing nothing to prevent the disproportionate impact of recession and cutbacks on the working class.
Rising unemployment, even malnourished children, are regularly documented by the press. And Victorian eugenicists would have been delighted with PM’s recent suggestions on cutting benefits to families with over three children. (Stop them breeding! They’re at it like rabbits, you know.)
Even more 19th century are the scandalous conditions and treatment endured by hospital workers in Swindon, as exposed by the Carillion dispute.
In Victorian England workers – especially migrant men and women escaping starvation and oppression in Ireland – had to literally fight for work.
Dockers would line up every day in their thousands to join the desperate scrabble for a day’s hire, calling out beseechingly to the foreman to try to catch his eye.
In the 21st century, supervisors working for Carillion – a private firm subcontracted to run the facilities contract at Great Western Hospital – saw a better way of doing things, by demanding “considerations” in the form of money, goods and even gold in exchange for annual leave, overtime or shift changes.
Some 145 workers, mainly Asian women of Goan heritage, have been subjected to racial abuse and bullying as well as ongoing extortion by the exclusively white management team.
Although the women are on low incomes, the supervisors’ illegal demands have not even been commensurate with this. One supervisor demanded £1,000 from a woman worker. When she protested, the price dropped to £500.
The threats attached to the financial demands were explicit – one worker was told: “I can sack you – and if you give me gold I will let you keep your job.”
The workers are the backbone of the NHS, working as cleaners, catering workers and ancillary staff at Swindon and Great Western General Hospital.
All too often such vital work is considered low status, but the women are committed and dedicated, taking personal pride in the cleanliness of their wards. This is, of course, a crucial line of defence between patients and potentially fatal infections.
There is evidence that these abuses were reported to Carillion management in 2009, but no action was taken.
The GMB union believes that a culture of institutionalised racism meant that the staff were not believed.
Only after more than 100 staff submitted a grievance in December 2011 did Carillion conduct a token investigation, quickly concluding there was no case to answer.
Only after workers took strike action did a second, slightly more thorough investigation begin.
Carillion now admits that racism, bullying and what it wonderfully terms “inappropriate gift-giving” did in fact take place, but it has, with extreme reluctance, dismissed only one supervisor.
It admits that allegations had been made against this individual before, but states “no compelling evidence” was found. It accepts no responsibility and claims the problem has not been severe.
Workers have therefore been forced to continue to work under other perpetrators of harassment and racial abuse, which was naturally distressing and intimidating – as it was probably intended to be.
Despite this, workers had the courage to give evidence about the corrupt and racist culture at Carillion at grievance hearings.
The firm’s response? To add insult to injury by disciplining them – for offering bribes.
However, like the London matchwomen and dockers in the 1880s who fought back against appalling exploitation, the Carillion workers have shown themselves a force to be reckoned with.
Like their Victorian counterparts they are supposedly powerless in the labour relationship, but their strength lies in their dignity, solidarity and identity.
Dockers and matchmakers were often from Irish families, giving them strong cultural and political networks to draw on, as well as a history of resistance.
The Goan workers have a similar sense of unity. As one shop steward put it, “I am not just doing this for myself, I am doing this to help my community.”
As is often the case, being forced to strike has in itself increased the confidence and empowerment of the workers – the very opposite of what the employers hoped.
GMB organiser Carole Vallelly says: “During the first protests the women understandably felt a bit awkward holding placards and would almost hide behind them.
“By the time we came to protest outside Southmead Hospital [a new Carillion build], they were singing and chanting through the megaphone.”
Vallelly adds: “As we all know, going on strike isn’t easy and there are still the same supervisors in place that have had bullying complaints against them.
“They are making life particularly hard for our members, denying them overtime etc. We have around 60 tribunal claims in at the moment and more in the pipeline.”
The workers have also linked to the Blacklist Support Group, as Carillion has been a major player in the blacklisting scandal – further evidence of its anti-union ethos.
An illegal blacklist was exposed in 2009, when private company the Consulting Association was raided over breaches of the Data Protection Act.
More than 3,000 people were found to be on the list, which had been used to block them from gaining employment.
In some cases workers had been labelled “troublemakers” on the basis of doing no more than asking for health and safety measures or simply joining a trade union.
King’s College London professor of public law Keith Ewing describes the blacklist as “the worst human rights abuse in relation to workers” in Britain in 50 years.
No surprise that Carillion has been an enthusiastic user of the blacklist.
In one three-month period it was found to have spent several thousands of pounds checking 2,776 names against the list.
Carillion also admitted in court in January 2012 that its managers and managers of Carillion subsidiaries had supplied damaging and false information to the blacklist, which would have prevented workers from gaining employment.
But once again the firm tried to wriggle out of accepting responsibility for its actions.
GMB general secretary Paul Kenny says: “Carillon state that the blacklisting practices highlighted occurred many years ago and relate to businesses acquired by Carillon. No doubt they will be as shocked as we were to discover that the Consulting Association was invoicing them directly for searches right up to the date that the Information Commissioners Office raided their offices in 2009.
“These invoices are entirely separate from those provided to companies acquired by Carillon.
“Either Carillon does not have a command of internal finances and pays invoices without understanding who they are paying, which would be astonishing.
“Or they are telling a barefaced lie in order to try and conceal their shameful activities.”
Both the blacklist and the cover-up mentality of Carillion are further evidence of how well organised and co-ordinated those who oppose workers’ rights can be.
This is what we’re up against in the 21st century labour market. And further proof – if it were needed – that the left must be united in standing firm against it.
Louise Raw is the author of Striking A Light: The Bryant & May Matchwomen” (Continuum Press). She is organising a festival to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the matchwomen’s strike at the Bishopsgate Institute on Saturday July 6 2013 (www.matchwomensfestival.com and www.facebook.com/Matchwomen ) Messages of support for the Carillion workers can be sent c/o Carole Vallelly at firstname.lastname@example.org .