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Unite eyes OFT over contractors’ ‘cartel’ behaviour

Move comes as union re-launches strike ballot and ECA and HVCA relations deteriorate further

Trade union Unite is considering referring the seven major electrical contractors at the heart of the Building Engineering Services National Agreement dispute to the Office of Fair Trading, Construction News understands.

The union wants the watchdog to consider whether Balfour Beatty Engineering Services, Crown House, Spie Matthew Hall, T Clarke, Gratte Brothers, Shepherd Engineering Services and NG Bailey have been acting like a cartel.

It believes the move by the seven firms to quit the 40-year-old Joint Industry Board wage agreement and introduce the BESNA with the help of the Heating and Ventilation Contractors Association could constitute a breach in the law.

Unite leaders have so far declined to comment on the issue but a source at the union told CN:  “We want the Office of Fair Trading to look into the seven companies and BESNA as we believe that they are acting as a cartel.”

A spokesman for the OFT said the watchdog did not comment on which cases it was investigating.

But the Electrical Contractors Association – the trade association which jointly runs the JIB with Unite and has been publicly critical of its long term ally and one time potential merger partner, the HVCA – said it was aware of Unite’s plans.

Chief executive Steve Bratt declined an interview with Construction News but released a statement which said:  “We…understand that Unite the union intends to refer this case to the Office of Fair Trading.”

CN put the possibility of referral to the HVCA and chief executive Blane Judd said he had not yet been approached by the OFT, nor had the seven companies involved.

He said:  “We would call on Unite to sit down and talk to us about the introduction of the BESNA agreement rather than focusing on diversionary tactics.”

The latest allegations come on the day Unite re-launches its strike ballot of BBES employees.

It is the second attempt by the union to instigate industrial action after the contractor – which Unite claims is the ring leader of the group - had the first struck down in the courts.

A statement released by BBES said it was disappointed by the union’s behaviour given the majority of its employees have now signed up to the new terms.

According to figures provided by BBES to CN yesterday, 959 employees out of 1,250 have now signed and returned their contracts.

Some 98.8 per cent of Building Services South staff have now signed the contract, with 93.9 per cent of Building Services staff signed up in total.

A spokesman said:  “It is clear that our employees understand the importance of the BESNA to our business, securing jobs and modernising our industry.

“BBES would again urge Unite to reconsider its position with regard to the strike ballot and re engage in useful dialogue regarding the implementation of the BESNA through ACAS.

“We would clearly encourage all our employees who receive ballot papers from Unite to vote ‘no’ to a strike or any form of industrial action.”

Mr Judd echoed BBES’ comments and accused the union of contradicting its own guidance provided to members earlier this month when it issued a series of letters for those affected by the new terms.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey wrote to all affected members on 4 January, advising them of their legal position. The union provided example covering letters which could be sent by employees to the contractors.

The covering letters sought to clarify the members’ position should they refuse to sign up to the BESNA and warned of potential legal consequences. A Unite source has since told CN members are being advised to sign the agreement but to attach a protest letter.

In response to the allegation, a BBES spokesman said all 959 contracts received had been “clean”.

“BBES has been very clear since the start in our communications with employees that we would not accept returned contracts with any form of qualification letter,” he said.

Old rivalry

The strike ballot comes as the HVCA is undergoing a rebrand to become the Building & Engineering Services Association.

The move has promoted further criticism from the ECA, which is likely to lose some of its largest members as a result of the dispute.

Relations between the two organisations, which share offices, have been deteriorating for several years. A statement released by ECA chief executive Steve Bratt said he found the HVCA’s behaviour “disappointing”, arguing a merger was the “natural progression” for the two organisations but the “HVCA walked away from finding a collaborative approach forward”.

The ECA believes the BESNA fails on a number of grounds.

It argues the new agreement will simply add to the list of agreements already being used, including the HVCA’s existing agreement, and says it risks causing problems for large clients by failing to be collective.

It also claims there are “unresolved tax implications regarding the request for a dispensation from HMRC”.

Mr Bratt’s statement went on to say: “We recognise that it is important to HVCA to retain the contractors that are seeking to drive this through; however doing it in this way will do harm to the industry as a whole.

“Quite simply, any agreement we were to support would need to be beneficial to our members and not expose them to undue risk, including industrial unrest.

“We are determined to make changes in the industrial relations environment and have been in positive dialogue with the union about this. Through the JIBs the infrastructure is already in place to achieve modernisation. An Industry Modernisation Forum has been set up in conjunction with our colleagues in the building services environment to further develop the existing agreements. We would urge the HVCA adopt a more collaborative approach.”

In a statement given to CN in response to Mr Bratt’s comments, Mr Judd said:  “Clearly there is a difference of opinion over who walked away from convergence talks, but that is in the past and we want to focus on the future.

“The HVCA is committed to collaborating across the industry. For example, we are with the ECA on the Special Engineering Contractors Group, Summit Skills and have recently been invited to join the Industry Modernisation Forum. The HVCA is committed to protecting the interests of all our members and working with the industry to achieve this objective.”

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