The outrage over the practice will not go away until those involved pay for their shameful mistake
So you’ve been at the practice for two weeks when you’re called into the boss’s office. You’re fired there and then, with no real explanation and certainly no complaint about your work. You never get a proper job at a decent practice again. And as you scrape to make a living churning out kitchen plans for a DIY chain, you wonder what the hell you did wrong.
Luckily, this doesn’t happen in architecture or the professional end of construction. But perhaps if it did there might be some consternation, outrage even, instead of the deafening silence over the blacklisting of thousands of construction workers that’s making headlines, and quite rightly riling our politicians.
It was the subject of a Panorama programme last week, although the practice was first exposed in 2009 and has been going on for years. More than 40 construction firms, it’s claimed, have been operating as furtive vigilantes, denying thousands of workers a livelihood on the basis of hearsay evidence about their general bolshiness.
These were people like John, who I spoke to last week, a qualified electrician who’s been scratching a living since 2003 when he was kicked off a police station job in London after a week and a half. “I couldn’t get a sniff of the big stadium jobs or the Olympics,” he says. “When the list was exposed, the fact that I couldn’t get a job made sense at last.”
And his crime? “I complained about the state of the facilities — there was no soap or hot water and people were bullied to cut corners and work unsafely, and I stood up for myself.” He’s now one of dozens of workers set to bring class actions in the High Court to claim compensation for their treatment.
You can’t ask for public investment while acting like the Stasi
While no one is condoning blacklisting, and firms like Carillion, Skanska and Balfour Beatty have apologised, the industry’s line is that it’s historic — it wasn’t even illegal until 2010, and we need to move on. Fat chance. Unions like Unite and GMB have their dander up, and the Scottish Affairs Committee is on the case. After one damning inquiry it’s now launched a second, examining union claims that blacklisting is still going on. Crossrail is under the spotlight and a score of local authorities are said to be looking at whether firms that have used the practice should be struck off the tender list. Architects, take note whose integrated team you’re on.
Industry leaders need to understand this issue is not going away soon. Firms that subscribed to the blacklist not only denied people the basic human right to earn a living, they’ve also done themselves and the reputation of the industry a terrible disservice. They need to display contrition and heed calls to form a compensation fund. You can’t have it both ways, asking for public investment while apparently operating like the Stasi.
And it might be coincidence, but I didn’t spot any gongs coming the industry’s way in last week’s birthday honours.
Denise Chevin is a freelance writer and editor and research fellow of the Smith Institute.