Home Issues Racism exposed: why black-owned construction businesses hide their identity

Racism exposed: why black-owned construction businesses hide their identity

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By Zak Garner-Purkis
First Published 23 SEP 2020

In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement forced individuals and organisations to examine their attitudes towards race. It brought to the fore longstanding issues in the construction industry via sometimes vicious online debates. Zak Garner-Purkis investigates

*Names in this article have been changed to protect the identities of individuals

Adam* was confused about why the manager suddenly wanted to ban him from the project.

“Is it a site-wide policy?” he asked, thinking there must have been some change to the company’s COVID-19 regulations.

“No,” the boss replied. “We’ve got to protect ourselves from you foreigners.”

Adam is British and speaks with a thick Midlands accent, so there was no doubt what the manager was referring to: his skin colour.

Biting his tongue, Adam walked away.

Despite the outrageous nature of the manager’s actions, Adam had to be careful in his response. As a subcontractor, he knew any complaint to the main contractor, the employer of the manager who’d just dismissed him, carried immense risks. If the situation developed into a dispute, there was a good chance he would never collect the money he was already owed.

Even if Adam were to make progress with a complaint, there were other potential consequences he had to consider. If he was labelled a ‘troublemaker’, he might well be blocked from future opportunities to win work, not just with this company but with others inside its circle of influence. Blacklisting – the systematic practice of employers blocking certain individuals or companies from gaining employment – still takes place, if not on the highly organised, countrywide scale of the past.

Then there was the issue of the manager himself.

Everyone on site knew he was the brother of the managing director. Could the boss of the company at which Adam was subcontracting be expected to rule against his own brother? And worse, the MD might share the same racist views.

We all like to think we live in a fair and tolerant country where victims of workplace racism don’t have to face these sorts of Hobson’s choices. The construction industry is often keen to congratulate itself on the progress it has made in tackling discrimination. Chief executives from Mace and Crossrail, for example, wrote posts on social media aligning themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement.

But the truth is that racism and discrimination remain massive problems on sites and in offices up and down the country.

Construction News is not immune.

While we have often written about issues of diversity, as a publication we now recognise we could have done more to expose and challenge the deep-seated prejudice present in large parts of the sector. This article is not an attempt to attack the industry, but to present a more detailed picture of the many ways in which racism may be present on site and, increasingly, online.

‘Racism has never gone away’
Before this investigation, I’ll admit I fell into the comfortable trap that many white people like me do when it comes to racism: I didn’t think about it nearly enough.

I only examined overt acts of discrimination that came onto my radar. While researching this article, I was consistently shocked at the extent to which prejudice shapes the lives of people who fall outside a narrow white ethnic group. It made me ashamed I’d not tackled the topic more frequently in my career. The relentless moral, professional and economic consequences so many people face every single day, simply because of their skin colour, is appalling. And as Adam rightly pointed out to me, it is nothing new.

“I’ll be honest with you: it’s back in [the public] consciousness now, but this thing has never gone away. It’s always been there. It’s just an undercurrent,” he tells me. “You tend to find that it’s an individual or a pocket of individuals somewhere. Usually people from a particular area or a certain age.”

Unfortunately, prejudiced individuals can be found in positions of power throughout the construction sector. A former director at one of the UK’s largest contractors once described to me how a set of ‘made men’ remained in leadership positions within a particular specialism. These men had become untouchable by virtue of their long, successful records of making a profit on the jobs they ran. This, my source explained, was why more senior managers turned a blind eye to the vicious, outdated cultures they instilled in their teams.

“I rarely tell people it’s my company. I go in just as a worker because there are some people who won’t be happy giving a contract to a black-owned company. And you don’t know who that is until it’s too late”

“The reality is that these people get away with things because, ultimately, people decide between their morals and their pockets. And there’s very few people who choose their morals,” Adam continues. “We are in a position, at this moment in time, where if [people who experience racism] make too much fuss, we just lose jobs. So most people aren’t going to do that.”

For those who hold the power and money, decisions about racial discrimination are optional. But for those affected by racism, its impact is unavoidable. Over the course of his career, Adam has had to make choices that none of his white colleagues will ever face.

“I rarely tell people it’s my company,” he explains. “I go in just as a worker because there are some people who won’t be happy giving a contract to a black-owned company. And you don’t know who that is until it’s too late.

“This is not just me. There are several other business owners who I know portray themselves the same; that you don’t actually know the owner of the company. It’s because they’re concerned that if the client knew it was owned by them, they wouldn’t necessarily get the contract.”

Adam tells me about one example of a firm in the fit-out sector that deliberately hides the fact it is a black-owned business. The firm is careful not to disclose the fact on its website or by any other means because the owner believes it would cut the workload in half.

The racism debate on LinkedIn
Hannah* wasn’t expecting to be deleting abusive comments and obscene pictures from her LinkedIn post about Black Lives Matter.

LinkedIn is, after all, a professional network. Users who comment on posts do so with their picture, company name and job title clearly visible. Any statement has the potential to be viewed not only by the colleagues, clients and contacts within your network, but by a host of others connected in turn with those people.

Her own post contained the BLM logo, a one-line call for openness and inclusion, and a handful of hashtags. It made no reference to any particular incident or to protests. Compared, for example, to the statement posted by Mace chief Mark Reynolds, which referred to “the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota by a police officer”, Hannah’s message was not remotely provocative.

“I was actually surprised across LinkedIn by how silent everybody was [about Black Lives Matter] to be honest, because we talk about the diversity issue,” she recalls. “It’s a big industry challenge and, you know, something that is in every tender document.”

Black Lives Matter protest in Parliament Square, London. Picture taken 6 June 2020, credit: Steve Eason

Hannah had posted other messages about diversity and inclusion before, but the response to this one was totally different. It drew notice among the social media platform’s more vitriolic elements. The comments quickly descended into abuse.

“I expected, potentially, some negative comments and I thought there might be a bit of a debate. I’m happy to debate with anybody if it is meaningful,” she adds.

What Hannah didn’t anticipate was how upsetting it would be to revisit the screenshots she took at the time, weeks later while speaking to CN. The appalling level of hate in the comments had been totally unexpected. She hadn’t thought she might even need to delete a response.

“I would never, in any normal circumstance, delete something that somebody else has said because I don’t believe that,” she says, citing freedom of speech. “But I was conscious that these posts were connected to my professional network.”

Hannah is not an overreacting ‘snowflake’ or even somebody who is easily shocked. Having worked in some of the harshest, most macho workplaces that exist in the construction sector, she’s experienced the depths of the industry’s culture. Her mission, she says, is to foster positive debate that improves the sector.

“It really did shock me about how many people are prepared to put stuff out there that is really quite aggressive, and bad, to be honest,” she admits.

“I would never, in any normal circumstance, delete something that somebody else has said because I don’t believe that. But I was conscious that these posts were connected to my professional network”

While researching this story I found numerous LinkedIn debates just like the one Hannah experienced. Discussions on this topic among people within the construction industry often descend into abuse, threats of violence and the sharing of far-right memes.

The most shocking thing, beyond the awful comments themselves, it is the apparent willingness among senior managers and business owners within the sector to tolerate this type of public debate. Sometimes you will even see people in senior positions, directors and those in charge of procurement, actually posting the offensive comments. A quick scan of such discussions will remove any doubt about why Adam and other owners feel the need to hide the true nature of black-owned businesses.

One difficulty that Hannah faced was where to draw the line between debate and abuse. While obscene images clearly deserve to be deleted, many other comments fell into greyer areas.

For example, Hannah was unsure how to respond to users who would refer to a completely unrelated news story and then attack her for not replying. The repeated accusation was that she didn’t want to have “her narrative challenged”.

The group engaging in this kind of aggression is far greater in number than those prepared to post overtly racist remarks. They can probably be most generously described as ‘diversity-sceptics’. While some of their views could be interpreted as racist, the majority of comments are simply inflammatory. They are, however, actively opposed to the diversity and inclusion goals of the construction companies they often work with or for.

These individuals are a big problem for an industry dominated by white men, as it tries to shed its reputation for excluding certain groups.

Political opinion or contract breach?
To understand exactly how construction companies should approach these online debates about diversity or racism, I shared some examples with an expert specialising in employment law.

Kathryn Burke, an associate solicitor at Collyer Bristow, says that, regardless of the complexities of the debate, once an employee has posted something that could be viewed as offensive, the business should investigate.

“If I were the employer, I would say: ‘Look, you said something quite outspoken and we’re not sure that we’re happy with it, so we’re going to investigate it.’” Burke says.

“There are a lot of factors that you would use in that investigation,” she adds. “One of them is how many people have seen it. And how many customers. How many, if any, have complained about it? Also, which platform is it on? LinkedIn is obviously a career platform.”

“It’s all a question of whether the company thinks that it’s going to have a big impact on their organisation and their reputation.”

The difficulty, Burke explains, when it comes to the issue of race, is that comments can be interpreted in different ways and intent can be hard to ascertain.

“With the anti-Black Lives Matter movement it’s just very difficult because it depends why people are against it.

London, UK. 13th June, 2020. Thousands of nationalist, far-right and football lad supporters gather in Westminster to protest against the recent removal and covering of statues and memorials, notably Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. Police and press where frequently attacked with over 100 recorded arrests. Credit: Guy Corbishley/Alamy Live News

“You get into such a mess of people who aren’t aware that they’re potentially being racist or dismissive of genuine problems in society, and they don’t know they’re doing it. They’re probably not racist on purpose. But you can see how it could be viewed as racist.”

An example of this is the ‘All Lives Matter‘ slogan used by critics of the BLM movement. It is widely considered to represent a refusal to acknowledge the systemic racism experienced by black people. It is also a phrase used by many construction industry professionals on LinkedIn, examples of which may be misguided attempts make anti-racist remarks.

Hannah, for example, has had no problems having measured discussions with people who use the All Lives Matter slogan. Others, such as the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), have taken a harder line on its usage. RIBA launched an investigation into an employee who used the phrase in a LinkedIn comment.

“The difficulty is that employers have to approach it with objectivity,” Burke continues. “They can’t say: ‘Well, I think that’s racist, so we’re going to fire you for it.’ It is quite a difficult line to tread.”

For some hard-line diversity sceptics, there can be a deliberate unwillingness to accept that their words can cause real offence. But Burke says: “An employer has every right to suspend someone on full pay until they’ve got to the bottom of [a LinkedIn comment] and decide, in a fair way, whether or not it’s had a negative impact on their business.”

The easiest thing, Burke says, is for an employer to put a clear policy in place.

“Make a social media policy and say: ‘Don’t post political views on LinkedIn.’ And then you’ve got it watertight: you breached our policy, breach of contract, we’re going to the dismissal process.”

Breaking the echo chamber
One of the biggest issues faced by the construction industry is a lack of awareness of the depth of its own problems. Social media makes matters worse by creating echo chambers where people with similar opinions can congregate, bolster each other, and marginalise alternative views.

Industry leaders who posted support for Black Lives Matter did receive some comments in a similar vein to those aimed at Hannah. But most responses were positive and the debate far more respectful. Many users are, for obvious reasons, more reluctant to post inflammatory replies to someone with ‘CEO’ in their bio. But this means the leaders who have the power to change the sector may not see those more ugly debates.

As we know, main contractors often struggle to gain proper oversight over the types of behaviour prevalent on their projects. Policies to combat the poisonous cultures that exist often fail. In March, I wrote a piece for the Financial Times that revealed how a victim of workplace sexual assault on the Crossrail project was let down by ineffective corporate processes. Although the main contractor took the incident seriously, it was limited in its ability to take action because the perpetrator worked for a subcontractor.

“An employer has every right to suspend someone on full pay until they’ve got to the bottom of [a LinkedIn comment] and decide, in a fair way, whether or not it’s had a negative impact on their business”

Kathryn Burke, Collyer Bristow
There are efforts to improve oversight on flagship projects. The Balfour Beatty/Vinci (BBV) HS2 joint venture puts diversity and inclusion clauses in all its supply chain contracts. Subcontractors’ diversity practices are scored on an ongoing basis, with progress measured every six months.

I have also heard about a main contractor initiative to engage with those diversity-sceptic employees who pushed back against efforts to promote the Black Lives Matter message. Some of these people, I’ve been told, had their views changed by the conversations that followed.

But there needs to be a lot more action to challenge attitudes, and it needs to happen at all levels.

“The bottom line,” Adam says, “is that until these companies are forced to start actually showing what they do, in terms of equal opportunities, nothing’s going to change”.

“The fact that most of these people have only started talking about it now shows that they either didn’t think about it before or they didn’t care. Now they know they’ve got to be seen to [value it]. [Otherwise] people will start to vote with their feet.”