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Sparks 'black list' scandal


When a former Haden Young boss posted an alleged blacklist of electricians on the internet last week, the sparks began to fly. Russ Lynch examines the extraordinary claim that thousands of men are secretly barred by certain employers

'IT MAKES my blood boil that there's a list of names out there that could be taking the bread out of my mouth.' So said one furious worker who found his name and National Insurance number on the list of more than 1,000 allegedly 'blacklisted' electricians posted on the internet by whistleblower Alan Wainwright last week.

Mr Wainwright's website paints a picture of a shadowy world where so-called 'troublemakers' on electrical contracts have their cards marked by the big players in the sector and are barred from working on future projects.

A regional manager with Balfour Beatty's M&E subsidiary, Haden Young, until January this year, Mr Wainwright has accused the firm of blacklisting potential staff in an industrial tribunal launched against his former employers for constructive dismissal. He claims he was drummed out of the firm after complaining about the practice.

But he also highlighted three other major players in the sector ? Haden Young sister company Balfour Kilpatrick, Crown House and Emcor Engineering, formerly Drake & Scull ? and called on electricians who have had problems gaining work from them to contact him. All four companies have strenuously denied the allegations.

Over 15 years Mr Wainwright has worked for all of the firms except Balfour Kilpatrick.

Mr Wainwright's lists focus on three major M&E deals in the late 1990s hit by industrial disputes.

Electricians working on pharmaceutical giant Pfizer's major research complex in Kent ? where 250 sparks striking over health and safety won a tribunal against Balfour Kilpatrick ? are named.

Workers on the £220 million redevelopment of the Royal Opera House ? another Kilpatrick job hit by unofficial walkouts over health and safety ? were also listed, as well as more than 500 electricians on the dispute-ridden Jubilee Line Extension project.

The names on the list for all three jobs, Mr Wainwright claims, were passed to Drake & Scull by Balfour Kilpat rick in August 2000.

The M&E sector has the greatest degree of union organisation in the industry and with that muscle comes a notoriously short fuse. Amicus has reacted with outrage to the allegations. It is asking sparks on the list who suspect they may have been blacklisted in the past three months to come forward ? a move which could lead to a flood of industrial tribunals.

One union official said: 'This sort of thing is unbelievable ? we won't stand for it. The real problem we are having with these lists is that they don't just name union stewards or activists, it's everybody. It's almost like everybody on it has been tarred with the same brush because it was a problem job.' The official compared the alleged blacklist as a throwback to the shadowy Economic League ? an organisation which offered information to employers to screen out job candidates with left-leaning political views. The league was wound up more than a decade ago, largely discredited because of the inaccuracy of the information it held and undone by the introduction of the Data Protection Act.

Amicus tabled the blacklisting issue last week at the Heathrow Terminal 5 council week, where employers' representatives again denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, the Electrical Contractors Association ? of which all four firms at the centre of the claims are members ? is taking a passive line. Director David Pollock has refused to comment beyond condemning the practice and urging all employers to comply with professional recruitment policies. The ECA also refused to say whether it would investigate any of Mr Wainwright's claims ? or indeed discipline any company proved to be blacklisting. The Joint Industry Board of employers and unions responsible for regulating the M&E sector were also unavailable for comment.

But anecdotal evidence is mounting since Construction News broke the story last week.

A senior source at a leading recruitment firm in the M&E sector, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said: 'We supply the big companies and we are constantly frustrated by the turning-down of electricians for unspecified reasons. We also have situations on sites where the major M&E contractors are even vetting the labour we put forward to subcontractor firms which we are supplying with electricians.' He added: 'While we understand that companies keep records of performance of operatives, much in the same way as agencies do, we find the lack of any feedback as to why electricians are tu rned down unhelpful.

'By keeping silent about the reasons for inclusion or exclusion contractors are never going to improve standards. At the same time they are constantly bemoaning the lack of quality within the industry.' According to industry sources, blacklisting is a problem almost uniquely conf ined to the M&E sector.

One official from construction union Ucatt said: 'I can't honestly say that I have come across it too much although I personally have been blacklisted from working on the site of one major contractor ? I saw the memo on their headed notepaper.

'It tends to be more prevalent in specialist sectors like M&E. The men are more organised, so the employers have to be, too.' The chief executive of one Major Contractors' Group firm agreed. He said: 'We keep data on our staff as you would expect but we follow employment practices strictly. We don't blacklist and I don't know of any other major company which does, even anecdotally.' But the blacklisting claims could have far wider implications for the sector as a whole ? especially with the campaign to qualify the workforce through the CSCS skills card initiative Bob Blackman, TGWU construction secretary and deputy chairman of the CSCS scheme said: 'One reason why it could be easier to blacklist electricians is that they all have to have a JIB card.

'At the moment only 9 per cent of craftsmen have CSCS cards, but eventually everybody in the whole industry will have one. That's a really positive sign, but if people got hold of the information for the wrong reasons it could be dangerous.' Mr Wainwright has refused to comment further beyond his website postings until his tribunal hearing. But if the case goes ahead, employers and unions alike will be steeling themselves for more damaging allegations about the darker employment practices in the sector.