A call to end modern-day slavery in construction

14 July 2016

When you think of the term slavery, it conjures up all sorts of horrific images of inhumane acts against workers. To think it could be happening in the 21st century is hard to believe, but the hard truth is – it does and comes in many different forms other than physical abuse.

The (2016) Chartered Institute of Builders (CIOB) report, Building a Fairer System: Tackling Modern Slavery in Construction Supply Chains, states, “Modern slavery appears in many guises: its most obvious forms include people trafficking and forced child labour. These clear cut examples contravene all international standards on human rights and are rightly condemned.”

The report looks at how in current times, even with ‘…seemingly legitimate practices and masked by labyrinthine procurement mechanisms…’ exploitation can and is widespread and is often ignored or unexposed by all levels of people who should be able to recognise or be aware of such malpractice.

The workers most prone to modern-day slavery are the poor and low/unskilled immigrants who travel to regions of better income in the hope that they are able to earn money to send back to their families, thus pulling them out of acute poverty.

Often with no other choice but to accept whatever work is available, they can sometimes find themselves working and living in unacceptable conditions and can become prone to corruption.

According to the report, these types of labourers enter a ‘…complex and opaque system… with …ambiguous legislation and ineffective HR and procurement policies.”

The four definitions, according to the report are:

Migrant workers
Any worker that moves to a new place for work. This is often where the earning potential is much higher than their country of origin.

People trafficking
Any worker that is forcibly moved for the intention exploiting them for work, this can either be domestically or internationally.

Bonded labour
Any worker that is trapped in a type of work due to being in debt. They may be forced to work for free to pay off the debt. In extreme cases, the debt is unrealistic and may never be paid off in a lifetime and can be passed on to the victim’s children.

Forced labour
Any worker that is forced to work against their will in terrible conditions. This can often be unpaid and they may be held against their will. They often are subjected to violence and threat of violence to their families.

The global scale of the trafficking problem
According to the UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, there is a ‘knowledge crisis’ with regards to the enormity of human trafficking.

The report analysed criminal justice data from over 155 countries, gathering a few conclusions:

• The number of countries attempting to tackle the crisis has doubled in just a few years

• Whilst convictions are increasing, they are disproportionate to the increasing problem

• In 2007/8 – two out of every five countries did not report trafficking, highlighting ignorance to the issue or they not equipped to deal with it

• 79% of human trafficking is sexual exploitation and 18% is forced labour (however, these figures may be anomalous due to sexual exploitation being highly reported and forced labour less reported)

Other forms of unreported forced or bonded labour are:

• Domestic servitude
• Forced marriage
• Organ removal;
• Exploitation of children in begging,
• The sex trade, and
• Warfare

Whilst this isn’t relative to the construction industry in itself, it highlights the size of the problem. The report states, “Only by understanding the depth, breadth and scope of the problem can we address the second issue, namely, how to counter it.”

According to the International Labour Organisation, approximately 21 million people (5.5 million under 18 years of age) worldwide are “…trapped in jobs which they were coerced or deceived into and which they cannot leave.” 90% of these workers are employed in the private economy.

In total, three in every 1,000 people in the world are in some sort of forced labour.
With construction being one of the largest and most influential markets in the world and globally being worth around 1.3 trillion, it is safe to suggest that a large proportion of these workers will be placed in these industries.

Construction industries in emerging markets are also forecast to expand faster than in economies which are advanced. With higher numbers of forced labour workers in these emerging markets – the problem will only exacerbate.

According to the report. The construction sector provides the ‘perfect conditions for exploitation.’
Supply chains can be highly complicated and literally consist of hundreds of agencies, supplier and sub-contractors, with transactions becoming weaker to monitor down the supply chain. Whilst major contractors are usually able to monitor the first and second tiers of the chain, after that it becomes more diluted and fragmented.

Whilst the majority of companies are responsible and have policies to protect workers, the intricacies of the procurement processes can sometimes become weak, thus providing opportunities for people to inadvertently ignore and avoid issues that aren’t immediately relative to them or are too far away to face up to.

Kevin Hyland OBE, the UK’s first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner says in the CIOB report, “As supply chains have globalised and demand for cheap products and ever cheaper labour has continued to increase, the risk of slavery in supply chains, in the UK and internationally, has become much greater.”

The CIOB is calling for employers and organisations to come together to solve these problems and whilst the majority of the slavery is outside of the UK, the responsibility comes down to the major contractors to ensure more stringent measures and transparency further down the supply chain. The CIOB is also working with specialist training providers to introduce an industry toolkit.

Jill Wells, Associate, Engineers Against Poverty says, “The global trend towards outsourcing, and pressure to constantly undercut in price, are significant risk factors for vulnerable workers. The worst paid are effectively subsidising the multinationals and taking the brunt of commercial pressures. It’s important that we start mapping out relationships across the whole supply chain. The labyrinthine transactions between subcontractors and their agents are where we should be looking first.”