Building for the Future: Modern Slavery and the Construction Industry

Posted on Monday, November 5th, 2018

By Will Bordell

High-rise flats and first-time-buyer housing, city-centre office blocks and high-speed railway-lines, whopping shopping centres and tip-top football stadiums: new building projects are everywhere we look. But as we drive past construction sites on the way to work or on the school run, are we looking carefully enough at the people in high-vis jackets?

Recent figures from the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS) indicated that almost three in five construction procurement managers were confident that modern slavery didn’t exist in their supply chains. Yet that confidence simply doesn’t reflect the raw numbers. In Europe, at least, exploitation and forced labour in the private sector construction industry is only a little less prevalent than in the sex industry.

According to the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), £99 billion of new construction was commissioned in 2016. Predictions suggest that almost 36,000 new workers will need to join the industry every year between 2017 and 2021 to keep up with demand. This, in an industry where one in eight employees is born outside the UK and profit margins are very low, launches the perfect storm for people at risk of exploitation.

Why construction bears the brunt of modern slavery

Part of the reason why modern slavery is rife in construction lies in the very building-blocks of the industry. Projects are virtually always subcontracted many times down the chain. At each tier of the supply chain, the profit margin is wrung a little tighter, until nigh-on all the juice is gone. Great risks are involved, some of the worst of which involve payments arriving late – or, as epitomised by the Carillion disaster, not at all.

To win a contract, it makes sense for big companies to price labour as close to minimum wage as possible. But when, once won, the contract is divvied up a few times, each subcontractor tries to make some profit, and the workers lose out. Not only that, but construction workers also have to be flexible, ready to go at short notice to enable a deadline to be met. They regularly come from agencies, many of whom take a cut from their hourly rate, even though it is forbidden.

It’s no wonder that stories of exploitation abound. Workers don’t necessarily know their rights – and, when they do, they can be reluctant to come forward and assert them. Blacklisting is a particular problem, and workers can often be scared to complain due to the bullish tactics of some employers.

The Section 54 conundrum

What’s more, most of the businesses that make up the construction industry are small and won’t be caught by Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act. Section 54 obliges companies making at least £36 million in any financial year to publish a statement about the steps they’ve taken to remove slavery and trafficking from their business and their supply chains.

TISCreport has revealed that only around three in ten eligible companies in the construction sector publish statements. Even then, as the CIOB report makes plain, many published statements fall foul of basic requirements: they aren’t signed by directors, or can’t be found on the homepage of the company’s website.

If bigger companies don’t lead by example, an example should be made of them. Section 54 empowers the government to bring civil proceedings for an injunction against companies that don’t comply with their duties.

There’s no evidence that this power has been exercised, but it may offer the chance to create a more virtuous circle, where small businesses are forced to pay attention to modern slavery for fear of losing contracts with companies higher up the chain, companies that are legally bound to publish a statement which involves investigating their supply chain. In combination with a Fair-Trade-style scheme, like the one launched for car washes late last month, this could give smaller businesses greater incentives to comply and simpler ways to demonstrate their credentials.

Such an approach might go some way towards improving the statistics recorded in a survey conducted by the CIPS in August last year. That survey revealed a significant discrepancy between the number of construction businesses which had sought assurances from their suppliers that they were compliant with the Modern Slavery Act, and those which had actually undertaken site inspections to ensure compliance rather than merely to pay lip service to it. There’s only one tragic conclusion that can be drawn from these figures: in far too many construction businesses, modern slavery will go unseen by default – simply because there is no one there to look for it.

And it’s not just the private sector’s problem. In a recent Westminster Hall debate, the Home Office minister Victoria Atkins MP pledged the government’s commitment to tackling modern slavery in its own procurement. The Co-operative Party has been trying to get councils to sign up to its Charter Against Modern Slavery, which requires them to ensure that none of their suppliers is breaking the law. At the time of writing, 49 councils have agreed to implement it.

 

Seventy years ago, in response to a war that had “outraged” the conscience of the world, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights laid down a prohibition on slavery and inhuman treatment. The Human Rights Act, by expanding the ability of people living in the UK to enforce their rights 20 years ago, reinforced that bold declaration. If the decades to come are to live up to that ambition, we will have to give a lot more thought to how we build the future.

 

Will Bordell is currently studying to become a barrister. He hopes to specialise in the areas of public law and human rights. Will also writes regularly for The Justice Gap and is deputy editor of Proof Magazine. He has been a member of René Cassin’s modern slavery campaign group since early 2017, when he won the ‘Human Writes’ Essay Competition.