In the non-stop dirty war that capitalism wages against the workers from whose sweat all profit derives, the role of spies and snoops is of great importance to the bourgeoisie.
The fine of £5,000 for data offences that the courts imposed on one such, Ian Kerr, in 2010, whilst derisory, pulled aside a veil on the corrupt and crude forms which exploitation takes – the more so as the capitalist crisis grows more acute.
The public was shocked to learn how no less than 44 construction firms, including household names like Balfour Beatty, Costain, Corillian, Wimpey and, most notably, McAlpine, had long been availing themselves of Kerr’s services, paying him handsomely to finger any worker who had at any time been dubbed a ‘militant’ or ‘troublemaker’ by a boss.
To earn such a soubriquet from Kerr’s Consulting Agency one needed do no more than express concern about some health and safety issue on the job, or just join a union. Job offers for the individual concerned then mysteriously dried up all over the UK.
Information on the database included names, birth dates, home address, NI numbers, car number plates, previous jobs, union membership and details of all previous involvement in union activity or disputes. The list even included details of friends and relations. Moreover, this vast reservoir of hearsay information was hoovered up not only from the client companies alone but also from informal police and security service contacts.
On one of Kerr’s files, for example, a worker was said to have been ‘apprehended’ at an anti-racist protest. Since ‘apprehension’ (as opposed to actual arrest) would not register on an official police file, the obvious inference must be that such juicy titbits were being fed to the snoopers by informal police contacts – suggesting the same corrupt connections as have been revealed between police and the media.
Needless to say, the then Labour government was eager to bury the issue as fast as possible on behalf of capitalism – to this end cobbling together a hasty law which pretended to offer workers protection from this outrageous intrusion upon their privacy and arbitrary destruction of their career prospects. This new legislation was hastily shuffled onto the statute book to make it ‘unlawful’ to deny a worker employment on the basis of a blacklist.
Crucially however, these new measures did nothing to criminalise the keeping of blacklists as such, making a nonsense of the supposed protection offered. In order to claim redress, victims need to prove not only the existence of a blacklist, but also that they were refused work solely because of that blacklist.
To prove that in court is obviously very difficult, faced with the massed ranks of highly-paid company lawyers and a judiciary more temperamentally suited to picking holes in strike ballots than defending workers’ rights. Just to make it more difficult to get justice, workers have had to ask the Information Commissioner’s Office (the body which investigated Kerr) whether or not they are among the 3,213 building workers targeted on Kerr’s blacklist, rather than the onus being on the ICO itself to contact all the victims individually (as eventually happened over the phone-hacking scandal).
As a result of all these obstacles to justice, to date not one of the 44 companies implicated has had to pay a penny in compensation for the lives they have wrecked.
However, thanks to the workers’ own efforts this might be about to change. Eighty-four of them are pushing lost earnings claims through the High Court, which, if successful, could cost the industry tens of millions in compensation pay-outs. More damaging still to capitalist interests was the confession by the ICO that when they raided Kerr’s files in 2010, they confiscated a mere 5 percent of the total, leaving the other 95 percent in the tender care of Kerr.
ICO spokesman David Smith grovelled: “I do accept we could have done more.” If the 3,000+ construction workers on Kerr’s list represent 5 percent of the total files, that suggests a potential total of 60,000 victims drawn from across the employment spectrum, with the rail, car and shipping industries constituting likely fishing grounds.
Two years on, and with Labour back in ‘opposition’ (but not to capitalism), Ucatt is responding to the new revelations – by printing thousands of postcards for people to send to their MPs demanding that they support Early Day Motion number 609 put up by Labour MP Steve Rotherham! This EDM states that “it should be a criminal offence to supply, compile, solicit or use information in connection with a prohibited list”.In other words, it is asking that the ConDems do now what Labour in government signally failed to do then: ban such blacklists outright.
When Ucatt’s Jim Kennedy attended a session of the Scottish affairs committee, now investigating blacklisting in employment, Labour MP Pamela Nash asked him about the 2010 legislation. Kennedy soon put her straight on this point, retorting sharply “It is not illegal to collate and keep a blacklist.” (Morning Star, 31 October)
The real purpose served by such parliamentary gestures as this latest EDM is not to champion the rights of snooped-upon workers but to provide a distraction for workers, in the hope of breathing fresh life into the corpse of the Labour party. Ucatt would do better to spend less money on printing postcards and funding Labour, and more on building up a strike fund for the struggles ahead.
McAlpines, against which company the current High Court action is being taken, made a vast amount of money from construction of the Olympic Stadium. During preparations for that work in the second quarter of 2009, McAlpines made 5,386 individual checks on Kerr’s blacklist. Curiously, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, addressing the Ucatt conference back in May, hailed the Olympics, along with Ellesmere Port (where workers submitted to a two-year pay freeze in the hope of keeping their jobs) as “a shining example of trade unions as a force for economic progress for our country, working in partnership with management and the government”.
Workers should shun such ‘partnerships’ like the plague – and in particular the paralysing ‘partnership’ between unions and the Labour party.
The RMT has drawn attention to one blacklisting website, hrblacklist.com, which is so crass that it is tempting to believe it must be a spoof. It is being taken deadly seriously by the RMT, however, a number of whose leaders and activists figure on its pages.
Visitors to the site, which describes itself as “an ethical human resources community for employers and employees”, are invited to act as paid informers (“HR Agents”). Under the job description, potential candidates are advised “You will work at home. You will introduce CV’s in the HR Blacklist database, together with your own evaluation of the employees … [You] will receive 1 USD, each time a user will pay for a CV you introduced in our database. Any taxes, bank fees, and any other additional expenses that might occur will be your own responsibility … [I]f you upload only one CV, this will not get you very rich, very fast. But if you upload 1000 CV’s this month, and these CV’s will be accessed just once every week, this is a whole different story!”
The reality is that snooping on workers in order to pick off potential leaders and disorganise the workers’ movement did not start with Ian Kerr’s seedy outfit in Droitwich and will not end with Early Day Motion 609. As we pointed out when the scandal first hit two years ago, “this story in fact begins in 1919, when British capitalists, understandably nervous about the revolutionary example being set by Russia, set up an espionage agency to spy on workers deemed to be overly militant.
This class-war agency, the Economic League, festered on until the early 1990s. At that point, having attracted some unwelcome attention, the league officially ceased to exist. In practice, however, it effectively went underground, changing its name to the Consulting Association and entrusting the bits of the database relating to the building trade to one of its employees – one Ian Kerr!” (Proletarian, February 2010)
We can be certain that neither closing down Ian Kerr’s freelance snoop shop nor passing any law at Westminster is going to make any serious difference to the regular blanket surveillance which workers suffer daily, knowingly or not, under bourgeois governments of whatever political stripe. That is a requirement of the crisis-stricken capitalist system and will end only when bourgeois class rule ends.
Ian Kerr and his chums are to be congratulated for bringing that day a little nearer by revealing the hollow pretence of ‘democracy’ and ‘individual liberty’ in capitalist Britain.