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11th May 2018

Modern slavery in the UK: we can't ignore our responsibilities as professionals

It’s nearly four years since CIOB’s Annual Members’ Forum in Qatar. We covered a lot of ground in that hot and dusty week. As well as looking at world class projects, members learned about the challenges of protecting migrants and the evils of illegal recruitment fees. We also explored best practice, such as how to improve worker welfare and how to recruit ethically.

This was the first time that the CIOB had looked at labour exploitation in detail, and, urged on by members; it led to a series of reports and projects. In 2015,The Dark Side of Construction sought to raise awareness of modern slavery in the global sector. Then in 2016, Building a Fairer System started looking for ideas and possible routes forward.

In 2017, we launched a training Toolkit with multi-stakeholder initiative StrongerTogether. The CIOB Academy also launched an Ethics MOOC (massive open online course). This interactive programme, free for anyone working in the sector, has been designed to help people embed ethical leadership into their daily decision-making.

This year we turned to the UK, curious to see what industry was doing in the light of the Modern Slavery Act. The project started small as we were not sure what we would find. After all, the media routinely covers exploitation in car washes, nail bars and illegal cannabis cultivation. Could our sector really have similar problems?

What we found was unsettling, nudging us out of complacency. We still don’t have a full picture of human trafficking and modern slavery in UK construction, but the risks are staring us in the face.

Our research highlights the difficulties that all stakeholders have, including companies, enforcement agencies, and the police, medical and social workers, in understanding the complexities of human trafficking: how victims are tricked and trapped; how criminals operate and evolve.

We don’t yet have all the facts, but be in no doubt: any supply chain is at risk of criminal infiltration. Over the past year we’ve heard stories of abject misery, and not just on small fly-by-night sites, but on some of the UK’s most prestigious projects.

Perpetrators could be anyone from casual chancers, exploiting friends or family members to sophisticated organised gangs. Entrepreneurial to their core, they will quickly find new ways of avoiding detection.

And, sad to admit, our report illustrates how procurement and recruitment practices are making it easier for those labour abuses to take place.

The full extent of the damage that our aggressive price-driven culture is wreaking on the health and wellbeing of all workers is as yet untold. But we should seize this opportunity to reinvent our business models and find a new narrative for talking about human rights risks.

Professional leadership is at the heart of this transformation, and not just at the top of organisations. We all need to take more responsibility for what we see around us. The UK has come a long way in implementing the Modern Slavery Act, but before we start preaching abroad, we need to take a closer look in our own backyard.

Construction and the Modern Slavery Act: tackling exploitation in the UK launches 14 May 2018

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