Statistically, there should be three times as many workers from ethnic minorities on Britain's building sites as there are. So is the industry institutionally racist – or just very bad at marketing itself to these groups?
Jamaican welder Carlton Gray is the latest worker to be at the centre of a race row on a building site. Gray, 39, works for Skanska on the Stratford Box section of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in east London. He says he has been suffering racial harassment on the site, and has raised the issue with construction union UCATT.

Gray says he has been followed around the site, harassed and called names, but did not want to go into the details of his case at this stage, because Skanska is investigating the situation and interviewing other workers on the project.

Grey's complaint comes a week after Building reported on Najjif Shah, another worker on the CTRL who was subjected to a campaign of abuse.

Chris Tiff, UCATT's organiser for the area, was due to meet Skanska representatives this week to try to resolve the situation. Tiff told Building that the nature of the allegations was serious and that Gray would have UCATT's support. "We will meet Skanska and may have to consider whether to launch an employment tribunal," he said.

A Skanska spokesperson confirmed that an investigation was taking place, and added that the firm was "vigorously carrying it out with UCATT as part of our grievance procedures. This will hopefully be resolved quickly".

The industry is to be challenged on the race issue sooner than it thinks. Construction leaders are to be confronted with the findings of an independent report to be published in a little over a week on the retention and progress of black and Asian workers in construction.

The report will reveal that representation of these groups in the construction industry is only 2%, compared with 6.7% of the working population as a whole.

The report, which is co-sponsored by the Construction Industry Training Board, will be published on 9 October at the strategic forum's Respect for People conference. It has been written by a team from the Royal Holloway, University of London, and will follow up a similar report by the university three years ago.

There is still a long way to go to achieve a construction industry that looks like Britain

Sir Michael Latham

The university's 1999 research found that the construction workforce was made up of 1.9% black and Asian people compared with 6.4% of the working population as a whole. Industry leaders at the time gave assurances that the situation would be tackled, and the percentage of ethnic minorities did rise to 2.4% in 2000 before slipping back to its current level.

This year's report will include recommendations about how the industry really can improve the situation. Part of the problem is that there is a vicious circle: minorities do not work in construction because they believe, quite correctly, that minorities do not work in construction. The report will therefore urge firms to change this perception by appointing at least one member of a minority to their selection recruitment panels. And it will recommend that more black and Asian university lecturers be recruited, and that universities play a greater role in ensuring that black and Asian students have a direct route into the industry after their academic studies.

Figures to be released at next month's conference will reveal that minorities registering for NVQs in construction do so at a much later age than their white counterparts, which can take them outside the 16-24 age range that attracts government funding.

The researchers found that minorities make up 10% of those taking construction degree courses. However, between spring 1994 and spring 2002 only 4% of graduates employed in the professions and management were from a minority.

Other figures show that, in the same period, 7434 professionals and technicians in the construction industry were from a minority, and another 6114 were in management. Together, these make a total 13,548, which means that only 3.2% of all those employed in the professions or as managers are from minorities.

CITB chairman Sir Michael Latham readily acknowledges that there is a problem. He says: "There have been some slight improvements in recent years, but there is still a long way to go to achieve a construction industry that looks like Britain."

He adds that the industry must change, and that it is the CITB's priority to assist in that change. "CITB has set targets for women and black and Asian people for entrant training starts," he says.

At next month's conference, the industry will hear how it can become involved in a new partnering system called Local Collaborative Partnership Projects, which aims to get minorities paid work experience in the construction industry. This year, at least 120 jobs or paid work experience positions in construction will be created for women, black and Asian people as part of the CITB's diversity strategy for 2002 to 2006.

Ethnic minorities make up 10% of those taking degrees but only 4% of those in the professions and management

Royal Holloway report

According to Di Barber, the CITB's equal opportunities adviser who will be speaking at the conference, recent research has shown that black and Asian people are interested in construction. "When looking for an apprenticeship or, once qualified, a job, they [black and Asian people] are not being employed as much as white males – yet employers say they don't get enough black and Asian applicants." It is hoped that LCP projects will solve this problem by providing employers with access to non-traditional recruits and returners.

One area where the industry will try to encourage contractors to promote greater diversity in their workforce is through client leadership. Many housing associations demand information on the ethnic diversity of their contractors as a means of ensuring that they are socially responsible.

Lad Construction is a £10m-turnover contractor run by Asians which works across the commercial and housing market in north-west London. Contracts manager Nitten Mistry says there is always extra form-filling to be done when working for housing associations. "The associations always make you fill in lots of forms to report the ethnic criteria of your workforce.

I suppose that is to make sure that there is sufficient representation when working on racially contentious projects."

A spokesperson for the Housing Corporation, which funds and regulates housing associations, says it takes ethnic diversity seriously when making funding decisions. The spokesperson says the corporation works with the associations to improve the situation if it is found that there is a shortfall in black and Asian representation on projects, and adds that housing associations are a good example of clients taking the lead in the construction industry's procurement process.

The current climate of investigations into on-site racism does little to reassure black and Asian candidates that the industry would welcome them. This week, it is Carlton Gray's case in the spotlight. And last week, Building revealed how Najjif Shah, a Pakistani Muslim working for contractor WPB on the Skanska-run section of the CTRL, won an employment tribunal verdict against his employer after suffering racial abuse.

Shah was accused by his supervisors of being "a spy for Osama Bin Laden", and was subjected to racial intimidation such that he felt his safety, and that of his family, was at risk. In this case, Skanska was exonerated by the employment tribunal because Shah was not its direct employee.

Race cases of this kind fall against a backdrop of rhetoric within the industry over the need to recruit more black, Asian and ethnic minority staff to help alleviate the skills crisis. Only two weeks ago, industry leaders met in Westminster to launch Accelerating Change, the follow-up to Sir John Egan's Rethinking Construction report. It explains how the industry should go about filling the 380,000 jobs that are vacant in the industry, and gives clients the job of policing the ethnic diversity of their contractors.

Ethnic representation in construction

  • Ethnic minorities make up 6.7% of the economically active population.
  • Ethnic minorities make up 2% (55,910 people) of all those employed in occupations across the construction industry.
  • The percentage of ethnic minorities in the industry has remained at about 2% since 1995. It was at its highest at 2.4% in 2000 and at its lowest at 1.8% in 1997.
  • There are 7434 professionals and technicians from ethnic minorities in the construction industry; 6114 of these are in management. Together these make up 13,548, or 3.2% of all those employed in the professions or as managers.
  • The percentage of ethnic minorities joining construction-related degree courses is 10%. However, between spring 1994 and spring 2002 only 4% of graduates employed in the professions and management were from ethnic minorities.
  • Ethnic minorities make up 2.3% of sole traders and 2.9% of entrepreneurs running enterprises employing one to 10 people.

Contractors’ questionnaire

We asked 15 of the UK’s biggest contractors to comment on the ethnic diversity of their workforce and what they were doing to promote it. This is what they said. Amec
We don’t have that data on diversity; we are updating our systems to make it available. We do not have a policy for recruiting ethnic minorities, as that would be positive discrimination, but we’re an equal opportunities employer with a comprehensive grievance procedure. Balfour Beatty
About 6.6% of our UK workforce is from ethnic minorities, but that’s all non-white European. Bovis Lend Lease
The only data available suggests that 20% of our UK workforce is from ethnic minorities. Carillion
We don’t have up-to-date figures. We do have specialist recruitment policies — but they are part of an overall equal opportunities policy. We have human resources advisers to help people who’ve suffered discrimination. Costain
In the UK, 6% of our staff are from minorities. Our recruitment policy is simple — we look for experience, knowledge and skill. HBG
The proportion of ethnic minorities varies across our operational regions. For example, at our London head office 14.7% of our staff are from minorities. Kier
Although we include ethnic monitoring questions on our application forms, we do not require individuals to disclose this information. However, we exercise care in our recruitment process to ensure fairness. Mowlem
We can’t get figures on minorities as our database is being developed. We take appropriate action to protect staff from any discriminatory behaviour. Taylor Woodrow
Ten per cent of our UK workforce is from minorities. Shepherd Construction
Minorities make up 3% of our workforce. We have a policy where we recruit the most suitably qualified and experienced candidate within the local market. Skanska
A significant proportion of our workforce is from Europe, Russia, Africa and India. We look for the best people irrespective of race. Skanska has a special policy concerning sexual or racial harassment, and disciplinary and grievance procedures are ultimately dealt with by the company managing director. Skanska also has a whistleblowing policy, involving a permanently manned telephone helpline which staff can use if line management has not responded to their grievances. Wates
Traditionally we have not monitored our workforce – however, all recruits are sent an equal opportunities questionnaire. Any employee who believes that they are the victim of discrimination or harassment on the grounds of race can use our grievance procedure. Alfred McAlpine, Laing O’Rourke and Jarvis did not comment.