New anti-slavery toolkit for construction industry welcomed as a 'godsend' by experts

Posted On: 
24th February 2017

UK's Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner commended the first-ever construction industry anti-slavery toolkit as 'exactly what is needed’, at last week's launch event in the House of Lords. 

The audience was introduced to the reality of the situation through a film-short CONCRETE, based on a true story. As the film depicted, workers are abused in ways such as forced or bonded labour, late payment, unsanitary living conditions, withheld passports, intimidation and physical abuse.

A few years ago, the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) held their annual Members’ Forum conference  in Qatar, a country in the wake of a PR nightmare following their reported use of modern slavery in the construction of their FIFA stadiums.

The theme of the conference was ‘respect for people’, with a focus on forced labour in the construction industry.

“We were not sure if we were going to be welcomed back to the country by the end of it,” said CIOB’s CEO Chris Blythe OBE as he addressed a packed room of construction industry leaders, peers and Home Office officials in the House of Lords.

The conference put a spotlight on modern slavery practices globally, said Mr Blythe, but also acted as a springboard into questioning what was happening back home – where recent legislation made it clear there was still much to be done.

“After the Modern Slavery Act was passed, the industry started discussing best practice and I started to hear a lot of anecdotes of things happening on construction sites that were ‘just not right’.”

This began a year long journey that culminated in an event last week, where the CIOB, alongside  stakeholder initiative Stronger Together, launched the first ever toolkit to help tackle modern slavery in the construction industry.

Slavery may seem like an archaic issue of the past, but as the audience heard from Miram Minty of the Home Office Modern Slavery Unit, it is a disturbingly common reality.

“Today there are 45 million people enslaved and there are 21 million people in forced labour all around the world.”

“This is big business for criminals, making over $150 billion a year, and that’s why there are a lot of criminals interested in this line of work.”

The Government estimates that there are around 13,000 people in modern day slavery in the UK today. Out of these cases, forced labour has taken the lead, with the number of victims increasing five fold since 2010 - many of which can be found working in the construction industry.

Although, the speakers explained, no respectable business would choose to be associated with human rights abuses and exploitation, it often infiltrates and remains hidden in supply chains.

With its fragmented supply chain, covering raw material production, manufacturing and site labour, alongside opaque procurement processes and high demand for migrant labour, the construction sector is highly vulnerable to modern slavery. 

The UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland OBE said some people believe wrongly that the complexity of the industry’s supply chain allows people to dismiss the issue as too difficult to tackle.

“Look at what we did with the horse meat scandal. If we had the same approach to people, we would be able to tackle this.”

“We need to change day to day behaviour and culture. It’s not just about enforcing the law, it’s about cultural change.”

“I am very pleased with the toolkit published today. It will actually give ideas, measures, and ways to respond to organisations looking to tackle the issue.

“Initiatives like this are exactly what is needed – giving people skills based off of experience and understanding. It is not helpful to have someone just offer a theory, you need someone from the industry.”

The industry must remain vigilant against human trafficking, especially in light of the migrant crisis, said the commissioner.

The CIOB CEO agreed, adding: “To get a handle on it and deal with it is vital for the interest of the industry, not least as we face a call to increase output amid a quite clear labour shortage in the future. And the squeeze is really on, and when that happens attention to detail often goes out of the window.”

Mr Blythe said the toolkit aims to help assess risk, raise awareness, help identify exploitation through modern slavery, and give tools to deal with it when it is discovered.

“It is also there to help boards and create a systematic process, as well as give companies the opportunity to put out a meaningful statement.”

Creating an understanding that reaches from those who work on the site to those in the boardroom is an essential step in the process, said Mr Blythe.

“Contractors are under pressures to produce, as they always are, but when things go wrong, they need empowering to do the right thing.

“Being ‘empowered’ at a site level job, really means that there is a clear understanding that people in the boardroom will support what you do even if there are consequences in terms of delays and small disruptions.

“When it comes to exploited labour, that’s what we are trying to do with the toolkit: it’s to create a pattern from the board all the way down to the site – whether it is dealing with issues of local labour or dealing with issues around foreign bought material that may have exploited labour in their area.”

This is not the first time an industry-wide toolkit has been created to tackle human trafficking. Stronger Together produced another guide with the food industry, a body of work that M&S Ethical Trading Manager Helen McTaggart has found invaluable.

“When businesses are faced with the question ‘what can I actually do?’, toolkits like this are a real godsend because it is a really practical initiative that enables businesses to say, ‘here is something that I can take, and I can do',” she told the audience.

Between industry efforts like the toolkit and Government led initiatives to make tackling human trafficking a top priority, Mr Hyland concluded: “We have a good chance to push this where it needs to be; in the history books.

“It is vital and of the utmost importance that we treat our fellow man with dignity and equality.

“That’s what this is about. Ensuring that criminals do not reap profit off the suffering of others. And it is the people in this room that, if we work together, have the power to change it.”