Construction companies in ‘black list’ debacle

Posted: 13th May 2016

SecretsIn a unique case which raised crucial data protection and information management issues, a number of major players in the construction industry have agreed to pay damages to workers whose details appeared on a secret so-called ‘black list’ of those who were viewed as potential troublemakers.

Various construction companies admitted that they had, since at least the 1970s, been involved in secretly collecting, storing and distributing amongst themselves information about thousands of workers. They were claimed to have been targeted due to their left-wing views or trade union activities.

Long-held suspicions that such a database existed were confirmed in 2009 when, following the execution of a search warrant, the Information Commissioner seized various documents, including a list of 3,300 names. The companies accepted that there had been a secret vetting operation which caused harm to the employment prospects of workers involved and which should never have happened.

The secret nature of the database meant that workers had no way of establishing whether their details were included in it, or any chance to challenge the information that was kept and available for dissemination. In those circumstances, a large number of workers brought claims against the companies in a group action. The causes of action pursued were breach of confidence, misuse of private information, defamation and breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.

In settling the workers’ claims, the companies issued an unreserved apology before the High Court and agreed to pay substantial damages. They accepted that the information had been communicated and kept in secret and was not subject to any verification process. It was also agreed that inclusion of individuals’ details on the database imported the defamatory message that they were prone to causing unjustified disruption in the workplace.