Construction industry must remain vigilant against modern slavery in Brexit Britain – CIOB

Posted On: 
16th February 2017

The Chartered Institute of Building CEO Chris Blythe speaks to PoliticsHome about combating modern slavery in the industry as they launch a toolkit to help tackle the problem.

Modern slavery is difficult to detect, with most cases only being uncovered by accident.
Credit: 
PA Images

A few days ago, Chris Blythe looked out of his office window and noticed every road and car park surrounding the building had block paving. The previous week, the Chartered Institute of Building CEO had watched a documentary on modern slavery which featured trafficked workers involved in similar constructions. 

“There's a potential that some of this work could have been done by people who are being enslaved,” he said of the area around his office.

Modern slavery is a topic Mr Blythe has become an expert on in his role as CEO of CIOB. In a bid to prevent the use of slavery in the construction industry, the organisation has taken it upon itself to create a modern slavery toolkit for the industry and its supply chain, launching today in the House of Lords.

The construction sector must be vigilant as it is always vulnerable to abuses because of the complex and multi-layered nature of the industry, said Mr Blythe. 

“There are many, many steps between the client and the people at the very bottom who end up having to deliver buildings and infrastructure. You've got clients, you've got main contractors, you've got principal sub-contractors, you've then got subcontractors, sub-subcontractors and so on, all the way down.” 

In the UK today, it is estimated that between 13,000-20,000 people are being forced to work as modern slaves, although Mr Blythe said that estimate may be conservative because the practice is very difficult to detect. 

Most cases, Mr Blythe explained, are discovered by accident. 

"People aren't going on site with a badge saying 'I'm a slave' and they'll often be intimidated not to tell people. If you're a Romanian, for example, the gang could be putting pressure on your family back home and that's how you exercise control. But you find a lot of these things out by chance, and that's not great.”

One such a case was recently relayed to him at a modern slavery event, where suspicions were raised when a group of previously conscientious workers started to have lots of little accidents after a shift pattern change.

“After a bit of probing and chasing down, it was discovered that these were part of a group of nearly 40 workers living in a three bedroom house and they were hot-bedding. All these people were on shifts and when you got off your shift, the bed that you were going into was warm from the person who had just left; but for this gang now when they got home, the bed was occupied so they had to rough it. This led to fatigue and that caused their performance to drop. It became clear the workers in the house were being exploited.”

Mr Blythe added: "Trying to nail this down is like trying to nail jelly at times. It's quite a challenge but it’s happening. People get caught and exposed but it needs people to be vigilant. A lot of what's happening is happening in plain sight."

The newly launched toolkit will be a framework, said Blythe, providing a process to help those working in construction to minimise the risk of modern slavery in their supply chain.

“There's a lot of people going out there trying to tackle bits and pieces without actually looking at it from a more holistic point of view. The aim is to be able to first understand the issues of modern slavery, and then look at the practical implications of how to prevent it.” 

"At the moment, if people come across modern slavery, they get rid of the team of people instead of tackling the issue. Which means it never gets reported and people who are suffering stay in misery, they are just being used somewhere else.

“Or the workers have nowhere to work and what was a bad situation is  now a real humanitarian crisis because they've now got no money coming in. And where they were in a terrible place, it is now absolutely devastating. So sometimes the measures that firms may take to protect themselves are absolutely wrong, and part of the issue with the toolkit is to give people the confidence to do the right thing.”

Mr Blythe said there are two key elements to be aware of to ensure the industry is not exploiting vulnerable people.

“There's the labour that’s  in our supply chain, which we can control, and then there are the materials being used.. We need to understand where those materials are coming from around the world and then take action within the supply chain to deal with that.”

When it comes to labour, a percentage of the market quota is filled by migrants - including EU nationals. Brexit will present a challenge for the already large skills crisis faced by the industry, Mr Blythe explained, and there is a risk that employers may take shortcuts and reduce diligence in a bid to ensure “bodies on the ground”.

“The checking may not be as great, it may be delegated to second, third or fourth-hand parties and that's when you get the criminality. A lot of modern slavery now is organised crime and the criminals are smart: they will go to and operate in places where they see a weakness, where there's pressure. “It's important to know that there are risks and when you have a labour shortage, you may find that a body is a body, you may not worry too much about where it's come from and I think that's a danger.

“That's why we need tools to ensure we are prepared, that we are vigilant and people are aware of it. I think this is the whole point, if you're aware of the issues, you can be on your guard. If you're not aware of the issues, then people can slip things in.”