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Deadly Scandal In The Building Trade

Construction workers are blacklisted if they say health and safety rules are being flouted, even though many of their colleagues could die or be maimed.

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.

The construction industry is sitting on a story as grave in its implications as the phone-hacking affair – graver Nick Choen would say in this article he wrote for the Observer. 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.

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.

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.

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