Construction is a crucial sector within the UK economy. In 2016, the value of new construction work reached its highest level on record at over £99 million and the sector created over 55,000 new jobs. However, with this success comes a challenge: modern day slavery is hidden on construction sites across the UK today.
Globally, an estimated 16 million people were in forced labour within the private sector in 2016. Construction ranks second only to domestic work for prevalence of this abuse, at 18% and 24% respectively. This high risk status is due to a number of causes, including a labour pool comprised largely of lower skilled and migrant workers. Additionally, the trend towards outsourcing has led to increasingly complex supply chains. Reliance on labour agencies, without proper due diligence of those providers, creates the perfect conditions for forced labour to occur. Norway has recognised this with its recent introduction of a limit on the layers within construction supply chains for companies undertaking public contracts.
The CIOB and other organisations are showing leadership, boldly bringing this issue to light and providing clear and actionable measures to address it. As the UK’s first independent anti-slavery commissioner, mandated to spearhead our national efforts to eradicate modern slavery, I am pleased to see this timely and in-depth report. It is an important addition to the understanding of slavery within construction and does not flinch from uncomfortable truths.
Intelligent companies will not shy away from these, recognising instead that tackling slavery is not only a moral necessity but also good business sense. Already, we have anti-slavery legislation in the UK, France and the Netherlands, with Australia soon to introduce its own Act and more countries likely to follow.
Within the UK, investors are increasing their scrutiny of company action and there is growing pressure on public procurement processes to embed anti-slavery due diligence. This means government contracts could soon be lost by companies failing to act. Whilst the Modern Slavery Act’s section 54 only captures larger companies, smaller businesses must pay heed or lose contracts with those higher up the chain.
The construction sector must also remember that the risk of modern slavery is not solely within its own labour force, but also within the supply chains for its raw materials and products. Addressing this dual challenge is no small task but it can – and must – be done. Businesses should be risk-mapping their operations and supply chains, and dedicating resources to identifying and remediating abuses.
I have said that this is a challenge. It is, but the construction sector has risen to complex challenges before. Health and safety is a useful analogy: after much effort within the industry, fatalities within construction dropped to the lowest number on record in 2017. This report should act as a spur to encourage the same concerted effort on modern slavery. The UK government has made the eradication of forced labour a priority, showing global leadership. It is time for UK construction to step up and meet its challenges, becoming a first class example of how slavery can, and must, be ended.
This blog is taken from the CIOB report Construction and the Modern Slavery Act: Tackling Exploitation in the UK, published 14 May 2018.