For people who care about the right of workers to be able to safely voice their legitimate concerns about the behaviour of their employers, today’s exposure by the Guardian of the blacklisting of workers in the construction and building industry will be very worrying.
The revelation shows that employers have been doing what they always denied – blacklisting those whom they deemed to be “troublemakers” for standing up for workers’ rights on a whole series of work issues.
And, it provides confirmation of what sacked workers and construction industry unions have suspected for a very long time. Indeed, in cases taken to prove unfair dismissal in the industry for union activities, such as speaking up about health and safety, the operation of blacklisting was already exposed on a case-by-case basis. One recent example concerns an electrician in Manchester on a PFI project .
But the victimisation in the construction and building industry is but the tip of the iceberg. Last month, the employers’ federation for the offshore oil and gas industry in Britain, came to an agreement with unions to end the use of blacklisting in the sector. In so doing, it admitted to what the oil workers’ unions had long argued – that the “Not Required Back” system was used to victimise workers who spoke out on behalf of themselves and others, and particularly over health and safety issues. Although the employers dispute the union’s view on how widespread the practice was, they’ve acknowledged that it has been going since the inception of the offshore industry in the 1970s. Indeed, it was a practice initiated by American companies brought over to get the industry started.
Just as worryingly, there has been a rising spate of victimisation of union activists in the public sector, where employers have traditionally been regarded as more fair-minded and equitable than private sector employers. From the case of the mental health nurse and Unison activist, Karen Reissman, to that of local government worker and Unison branch secretary, Nigel Behan, who has opposed outsourcing to the private sector at Somerset county council, to that of Adrian Swain, NUT rep at a London school, there is evidence that the roll call seems to be growing in public services.
The common denominator here seems to be union reps and members who are effective in voicing concerns and criticisms of the employers implementing government modernisation policies. Otherwise why try to silence them if they are ineffective? These are no doubt the public-sector workers that Tony Blair, when PM, claimed had given him scars on his back for attempting to modernise the public sector.
But, there are still other recent cases of victimisation in the private sector. The GMB shop steward at Thames Water, who criticised her employer over outsourcing, was told by her chief executive that she would be “exited”:
You obviously do not live the Thames Water values and your attitude is disrespectful. If you have no confidence in my leadership you should leave the organisation as soon as possible. Mike Tempest please interview this lady on Monday without fail and discuss an exit plan.
Meanwhile, an RMT activist was victimised upon returning to work after serving as a lay union officer.
My research for a paper to be presented at an academic conference in Australia later this year shows that not only have there been a significant number of alleged victimisations, where there is hard supportive evidence or actual victimisation (as determined by employment tribunals), but also this has been increasing in the last five years. So, from reports in the public domain, I have identified over 100 cases in the public sector and around 80 in the private sector (discounting those in the building and construction industry).
Surely it’s time to impose a proper punitive system on employers who victimise such workers? At the moment, victimisation can be hard to prove as the information required to do so is kept secret from the aggrieved worker, and less than 1% of employers who have unfair dismissal cases proven against them re-employ the said worker. Instead, they pay them off and – where this is in the public sector – they do so with public money.