It may come as an unwelcome surprise that construction is a priority area for the UK’s first anti slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland OBE.
After all, the most publicised scandals have been in industries such as fashion, agriculture and electronics. Apart from uncomfortable NGO reports from the Gulf region, the built environment sector has escaped major scrutiny so far.
But this is changing, following the passing of the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015. Now, any UK-based businesses with a turnover of more than £36 million must report annually on what they are doing to tackle slavery in their supply chains.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a government taskforce to “get a real grip of the issue across Whitehall”. This should concentrate minds even further.
Hyland is clear on one thing: he wants to businesses to proactively seek out problems. He has publicly stated that he will support organisations that do so.
This is important, because in an industry that is as highly fragmented as construction, there are no quick fixes or simple box-ticking exercises that can solve these issues. Rooting out human rights abuses will require persistence and cross sector collaboration. A thoughtful approach is needed: sledgehammer strategies could put victims in even greater jeopardy. It could take one or two decades before we see meaningful results.
Illegal recruitment fees are at the root of many forms of labour exploitation. In Amnesty International’s recent report: The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game, Exploitation of Migrant Workers on a 2022 World Cup Venue, migrant workers – typically from rural villages in Bangladesh, Nepal and India – said that they had paid between US$500 and US$4,300 to work in Qatar. To put this into context, the average annual income for someone living in Nepal is around US$690.
Deeply in debt before starting work, migrant workers become vulnerable to more visible forms of exploitation, from late or non payment of wages, to excessive working hours, unfair contracts and violence.
Tackling illegal fees will not be easy. Traditionally, responsibility for workers at the lower levels of the supply chain falls with subcontractors and labour agencies. Until now, it has been easy for clients and tier one contractors to look the other way, allowing labour agencies to “cover” recruitment costs. The Modern Slavery Act will force them to think again, to re-examine their business models and map out their supply chains in far greater detail than before.
Cross-sector initiatives have already been launched to tackle this issue. Earlier this year Coca Cola, IKEA and Unilever were among the founding companies for the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, run by the Institute for Human Rights and Business, which is pledging to eradicate recruitment fees within ten years. The group is urging that the employer pays principle - that employers foot the bill for recruitment costs - is embedded within industry codes and company policies in every sector. Built environment organisations cannot afford to lag behind these initiatives.
At present, the UK government is taking a softly softly approach. Organisations reporting that they are taking no action on modern slavery will not be prosecuted. But this is unlikely to be the case in five or ten years’ time when CEOs could find themselves facing some very uncomfortable questions. Right now, denying or dismissing the possibility of modern slavery in a business - the corporate equivalent of sticking one’s head in the sand - could prove to be the riskiest strategy of all.
Emma Crates is author of CIOB report Building a Fairer System: tackling modern slavery in construction supply chains.