4 November 2016
By Tercia Jansen van Vuuren
Time to face up: Modern slavery in the construction industry
Photo: AstridWestvang (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
In a previous article, we explored the newly introduced Modern Slavery Act (MSA) and gave an overview of how it relates to the construction industry. The MSA requires businesses with an annual turnover of more than £36 million to publish a statement that details their policies to prevent modern slavery. I recently attended the Modern Slavery and Ethical Labour in Construction Leadership Symposium, and these are my observations as to how the MSA can begin to be implemented in the construction industry in the UK.
Modern slavery, which includes forced labour and human trafficking, is embedded in the workings of the global economy. It is a form of organised crime based on profiting from the exploitation of vulnerable people. Whilst it is easy to think of modern slavery as something that is “out there” – in the mines of India, clothes factories of Bangladesh and construction sites of Qatar – the reality is that it pervades much closer to home. Jani’s story of his journey from Hungary to being trapped as a construction worker in the UK, is just one such example of false promises and exploitation.
In the UK construction industry, an area of particular vulnerability to modern slavery is labour employed through sub-contractors or agents. Whilst it may seem difficult to impact practices in locations far down the supply chain, responsible recruitment is an area where contractors and suppliers can take action right on their doorstep. Background checks on agencies should be part of the standard protocol. Talk to staff, especially agency workers, to check that they haven’t had to pay fees to secure employment.
It’s important to implement procedures for ensuring that you know who is on your construction site and be able to identify warning signs. The factsheet for construction describes several of these warning signs, including asocial behaviour, malnourished appearance or even a single bank account for multiple wage payments. People who are trapped in modern slavery are often vulnerable and not likely to assert their rights. It is therefore important to encourage open dialogue with workers and an environment where they feel safe to confide. Talk to people; it’s at the human level that we need to engage to tackle this problem.
Another key message was that the purpose of the MSA Statement is not for companies to claim to be free of modern slavery, but demonstrate that they understand the issue and are taking action to address it. It’s about knowing the areas of risk in your company activities and supply chain and being committed to improvement. The Act has been formulated with the intention of fostering open and honest introspection without the threat of prosecution. It seems to acknowledge that admitting that you have a problem is the first step towards solving it. The trick will be moving from cleverly worded statements with all the right buzzwords to real action in tackling this issue. This sounds like the challenge facing sustainability more broadly! Like sustainability, what really matters is the action that’s behind the statement.
Since the MSA only came into force this year, it is yet to prove itself and demonstrate how it converts intention into action. The Act is surely a step in the right direction and will hopefully be a catalyst in the global sphere – since the supply chain is global! Kevin Hyland OBE summarised the challenge that we face by quoting the abolitionist William Wilberforce: “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” In the construction industry, we know that there is a risk of modern slavery. What do we choose to do about it?