Lee’s story: “We were called to a meeting and told that if we didn’t pipe down, they didn’t know what would “happen to us”!”

Lee Fowler, an electrician who was blacklisted from the construction industry for 26 years after he spoke out about unsafe working conditions, spoke to the IER about his experiences.

14 Sep 2018| News

Read below about what working life has been like for Lee and his colleagues and how implementing the IER’s recommendations in Rolling out the Manifesto for Labour Law could make our society fairer.

Lee’s story

I remember when I first went to work as an electrician on Piper Bravo – the oil rig that replaced Piper Alpha after an explosion killed 167 people. I was in my early 20s, and knowing what happened last time really played on my mind. On my first trip out, there was a helicopter crash that killed 11 people. That’s when it hit me how much danger was involved. I considered quitting – in all honesty, I was scared. But then I decided the better thing to do would be to dedicate myself to making the rig a safe place to work. So when I got back to the platform, I put myself up as a safety rep.

At first, the company encouraged us to flag up dangerous working conditions and said we didn’t need to worry about being victimised. But these things go out of the window as soon as profit is at stake. When the job started to get behind, they tried to get around us – and the law – to speed the process up. They’d schedule jobs for when I wasn’t on site, then break health and safety standards they knew I would insist on meeting. When we realised what was going on, we told them that workers’ safety had to come before profit and if they weren’t willing to follow the rules we would resign. That’s when we were called to a meeting and told that if we didn’t pipe down, they didn’t know what would “happen to us”!

Not long after working on the rig, I got another job with the same company, this time at a gas terminal in Wales. When I turned up, my supervisor said I shouldn’t have got the job because I’d been “blacked”. We’d all heard of blacklisting – that if you rocked the boat by being involved in trade union activity or complaining when work was unsafe, the companies would conspire together to prevent you from getting work. And that’s exactly what happened to me. I spent 26 years unable to find employment on a ‘blue book’ site – that’s one covered by a collective agreement where you get decent rates of pay and conditions. I’ve spent that time unemployed, or scraping by on lower-paid work, going through agencies, taking on jobs as a so-called “self-employed contractor”, being denied my rights.

I knew I was being blacklisted, but back then everyone thought you were a conspiracy nut if you started saying some of the largest firms in the country were deliberating targeting you. But we were finally proved right in 2009, when a raid on the offices of The Consulting Association revealed a blacklist of thousands of workers created and shared by over 40 construction companies for decades – and my name was on it.

I joined the Blacklist Support Group and we tried to get justice, but we were forced to settle out of court when the firm put us in a position that could bankrupt us if we tried to push it to a trial. We got a bit of compensation, but that’s not justice. After all they’ve done to us, we want to see the people responsible – both company directors and police – own up to their crimes and we want them to be held personally liable. We’ve had our lives torn apart and we just want to be heard.

Changing Laws; Changing Lives

Lauren, Chris and Lee work in very different industries, but when we spoke to them about their experiences, a common theme emerged – all three felt de-humanised by work. They told us they felt ignored, devalued, treated like “a number”. And they’re not alone. There are 32 million workers in the UK and one in ten of them is in some form of insecure work; one in five earns just £15,000 a year or less, forcing many to rely on state benefits (most claimants are in work), and trapping 4.1 million children from working families in poverty.

Labour is not a commodity – one of the fundamental principles that should underpin new laws governing the employment relationship. By requiring employers to include workers on boards, giving workers a vote at company general meetings, boosting the rights of workers to be represented by their trade union and extending the right for their union to be recognised, Lauren, Chris and Lee would be given a voice at work.

By setting up National Joint Councils in every sector – at which employers’ and workers’ representatives agree minimum wages and conditions for everyone employed in that sector – Lauren, Chris and Lee would have a voice in their industry.

By reinstating a Ministry of Labour, and establishing a National Economic Forum on which stakeholders from across society scrutinise the impact of policy on workers and the economy, Lauren, Chris and Lee would have a voice in Westminster.

The workers we spoke to have also experienced first-hand the dangers of poor enforcement. The introduction of an independent Labour Inspectorate empowered to proactively enter workplaces to identify and resolve breaches, as well as better rights for unions to do the same, will mean it will no longer be up to Lauren and her co-workers to understand and enforce the law.

By making blacklisting a criminal offence, and directors personally liable for their actions, Lee would get his day in court and see the people who destroyed his life and the lives of thousands of others, held to account. Chris and his colleagues would no longer be afraid to rock the boat and would be better able to speak out not just about their rights, but also the safety of the people they represent.

Through widespread collective bargaining, and stronger statutory rights, we can make sure Chris is paid at least the Living Wage for every hour he works, and that his colleagues are properly trained to safely take responsibility for service users’ lives.

By giving health and safety reps the power to stop the job when workers are at immediate risk, or issue provisional improvement notices when they see a problem, we can protect Lee while he dedicates his time to protecting his colleagues.

By introducing sectoral collective agreements and equal rights for all workers from day one, everyone will be paid the same rate and have the same rights when doing the same job, so Lauren’s younger co-workers won’t have to struggle on just £5.90 an hour.

Lauren, Chris and Lee are people, not numbers, and so are their 32 million working colleagues across the UK. All that is needed is the political will and determination to change the legal, industrial and economic policies that govern their lives. Together we can ensure that everybody is treated with dignity and respect.

Read more about Rolling out the Manifesto for Labour Law and buy your copy