Construction is not renowned for its political correctness. But racism is more insidious than bigoted on-site banter – other industries employ 70% more black and Asian workers than construction. What is the industry doing about it?
The consruction industry is rife with racism. That is the finding of a report commissioned by the Construction Industry Training Board on the under-representation of ethnic minorities in the industry. The findings, published earlier this month, make for shocking reading. The construction workforce is only 1.9% black and Asian, compared with 6.4% of the working population as a whole – more than 70% fewer black and Asian workers than the UK industry average.

Researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, who compiled the report, spoke to 371 black and Asian people in the construction industry. They found that they had a catalogue of concerns, from racist comments, difficulty in getting contracts and jobs, and if they did get jobs, poorer promotion prospects than their white peers.

The report was commissioned after pressure from the Department for Education and Employment to investigate the low numbers of black and Asian recruits to the industry.

Construction minister Nick Raynsford admits there is a problem. He told Building: "The construction industry does not have a good record of recruiting or then developing employees from ethnic minorities. This is a missed opportunity, not only for people who may be very well suited to a job in construction, but also for the industry itself."

Does the industry care that it is discriminating against a pool of talent it can ill afford to ignore? The short answer is no. Firms express concern about the poor representation of ethnic minorities in the industry, and most have equal opportunities policies. But these policies are not working - either in overcoming the perception of a white-dominated industry with an entrenched culture of racism, or in eradicating discrimination for those already in construction (as our interviews opposite show). Racist graffiti and casual racist banter are all too common on Britain's sites.

The race issue is not new. But it has surfaced at a time when a London Underground Jubilee Line engineer has been charged with planting the nail bombs in London's Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho, and when the report on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry highlighted institutionalised racism in the Metropolitan Police Force. Royal Holloway research manager June Jackson says the climate of concern has prompted several companies from other industries to ask her to analyse whether they are racist.

The CITB is taking action but contractors have yet to wake up to the issue. A Building straw poll of contractors and consultants suggests that many see it as the CITB's problem, or as a problem for the industry in general rather than their firm in particular.

Boateng: You have to earn people’s trust – it is never assumed that you can do the job. It would be easier if people felt more comfortable around me

As a result of the report's findings, the CITB is taking action. It has set itself a target of attracting 10% more black and Asian recruits to the industry in the next year. It has started an advertising campaign in the national press featuring black and Asian people it hopes will make good role models. It also plans to visit schools in areas with large ethnic minorities to encourage more young people to consider construction as a career.

CITB chief executive Peter Lobban talks about the need to target employers on an area-by-area basis to "make sure they're keen to take on black and Asian trainees".

"Their perception of the industry is not as good as it should be," he says, somewhat understatedly.

But tackling recruitment is not enough, according to a spokesperson for the Commission for Racial Equality, which supports the Royal Holloway's findings. She compares the number of ethnic construction employees who feel discriminated against – 39% had experienced racist remarks – with the police and the army, both of which have at least taken steps to tackle racism.

The CRE spokesperson added: "Bright young black and Asian people don't feel comfortable about the construction industry, and they're going to look elsewhere to professions such as law, accountancy and IT."

The CRE's message to the industry is clear – racism and ethnic minority representation need to become boardroom issues. "People in a position of power need to take responsibility and put them on the agenda. It shouldn't be seen as just a human resources issue," she said.

Samuel and rock, of Irvine Whitlock, have experienced overt and covert racism. Says samuel: Graffiti can’t hurt you, can it?

Yet that is precisely how major contractors do seem to see it. Costain's training and recruitment manager, Geoff Hughes, was on the steering committee for the report. "I think this report will stimulate a response within my company," he said.

He added, however, that he had not yet raised the issue with his chief executive, and thought it was a problem that needed to be addressed alongside other contractors.

A Bovis spokesman expressed surprise at being asked to provide figures for the number of black and Asian people the company employs. And no, the company's ethnic mix is not being discussed at board level – "Racial discrimination is not perceived as a problem within Bovis," he said, although he added that "we do acknowledge a general lack of people from certain ethnic minorities coming into the industry".

Mace operations director Jonathan Goring said discrimination was an issue that the company could not afford to ignore. Unlike many other construction firms, it keeps data on the numbers of blacks and Asians it employs, and at 10%, this stands above the national average.

Goring says he thinks the issue needs to be dealt with right from the start, with the new recruits that are coming into the industry. "A lot of it starts at the feeder end and with the general attractiveness of the construction industry."

Kwasi Boateng

Architect “If you’re black, you’re expected to be holding a shovel and digging, not in management,” says Kwasi Boateng. The president of the Society of Black Architects, who has run his own practice, Knak Design, since 1992, is matter-of-fact about this attitude. He is used to it. Like many other black or Asian people in the industry, Boateng has to deal with such preconceptions on a regular basis. “When I turn up and ask to see drawings, people look at me as if to say, ‘what do you want them for?’ and direct me to the site entrance,” says the 38-year-old. He does not like to characterise the racism he has experienced as a problem because “people get defensive”. But he does say his colour has made his professional life more difficult. Architects, he says, are a generally enlightened bunch and he has not experienced any overt racism among his fellow professionals. It is when he is dealing with the rest of the industry that problems have occurred. “I had one site agent who had problems reading. He really needed to be able to read the spec, so I had to help him. He found it very difficult taking instructions from me. But he didn’t know me, and most prejudice is based on ignorance. In the end, he won and I won,” he says. The site agent got help with his reading; Boateng got the job he wanted done. Boateng is physically quite big – “it would be difficult to call me names and get away with it,” he says – but has been made to feel small on occasion. “There are many classes in construction and a definite feeling of ‘know your place’,” he says. “It does upset you and makes your work harder. You have to earn people’s trust – the assumption is never made that you can do the job.” Leslie Samuel and George Rock chargehand and site manager Leslie Samuel and George Rock, both born on the Caribbean island of St Vincent, are chargehand and site manager respectively on the Canary Riverside site in London Docklands. The Irvine Whitlock employees have both risen up the ranks through long service with the firm. They are pragmatic about casual remarks that could be construed as racist: “In society, people will always find what they think is a weakness to pick on,” says 41-year-old Samuel. “If you are black they pick on that, if you were blonde, it would be ‘Oi, Blondie’.” Fifty-year-old Rock says construction is no different from the rest of society but adds, “maybe it’s a little bit harsher because, you know, people say things they don’t mean”. He laughs off moments when workers have refused to take orders from him because of the colour of his skin. “When I was promoted to foreman, they sent me down to a new job and some bloke said to me: ‘two things son. I ain’t taking orders from you because (a) you’re younger than me and (b) you’re black. I just went to the boss and he told the man I wouldn’t be doing the job if I wasn’t good enough.” Samuel says visitors to site frequently assume white colleagues must be in charge. “I’ll be standing there and one of my lads will be standing next to me and the delivery man will naturally walk up to him because he assumes he’s the boss. Sometimes I have a little smirk about it.” The pair admit there is racist graffiti in the toilets on site – their attitude is that it is only to be expected. “Sure, there is some graffiti in there that says Les is a black bastard – it is normal, I’m the boss. Graffiti can’t hurt you, can it?” Woman Quantity surveyor “I’ve never had name-calling, but all the bosses I’ve ever worked for said I’d never make it as a QS,” says the 43-year-old, who is now qualified as both a QS and a building surveyor. She felt she was being discriminated against almost as soon as she went into the industry at 19, after her A levels: “I was put in an office with 38 engineers and nine surveyors and all I was given to do was filing. When I asked to go on site to get experience to help me qualify, I was refused.” The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, resents the treatment she received, which she believes was the result of both her colour and gender. “When I complained, I was told I had a chip on my shoulder. They eventually let me go on site but it was a ‘sink’ site. There was not a lot happening but they needed some staff there,” she says. People have since said to her they were amazed she stuck it out: “The majority of them were racist. They didn’t want me to succeed but I had to push on. I needed to pay my bills.”