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22nd August 2019
How is the Construction Industry Tackling Modern Slavery?

According to a recent report by the Chartered Institute of Builders (CIOB), 16 million people were working under conditions of forced labour within the private sector in 2018. Of these numbers, 18% were working in construction, the second most prevalent industry for this type of exploitation. Since the passing of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, which introduced a range of measures to clamp down on slavery and human trafficking, the issue has come under more scrutiny in the UK than ever before. Section 54 of the Act obliges all companies with a turnover of over £36 million to submit an annual ‘transparency in supply chains’ (TISC) statement, detailing the actions they have taken to combat modern slavery – both within their organisation and in their supply chain.

Construction – a perfect environment for exploitation?

So, why is modern slavery particularly prevalent within construction? CIOB’s most recent report on the topic, Construction and the Modern Slavery Act: Tackling Exploitation in the UK, points to several important reasons:

  • Business models based on outsourcing
  • Reliance on labour agencies
  • High percentage of migrant workers
  • Very low profit margins
  • A large proportion of the workforce at close to minimum wage
  • A lack of labour standards enforcement throughout the sector

Furthermore, with Brexit coming ever closer, migrants who are already at risk of (or already subject to) exploitation could find themselves even more vulnerable. At least a third of London’s 100,000-strong migrant construction workforce (many coming from EU countries like Romania and Poland) have done work for little or no pay and experienced verbal or physical abuse, according to anti-slavery organisation Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX). Depending on the outcome of Brexit, many EU workers could lose their right to work status; in its report, the CIOB expresses concerns that this could open the door to increased human trafficking.   

A lacklustre response to new legislation

Despite a flurry of government activity following the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act, including the publication of new government guidance on Section 54, the appointment of an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, and the submission of two further modern slavery bills, there is evidence to suggest that the Act may not have been as effective as was initially hoped. An independent review of the Act presented to Parliament in May this year concluded that some companies were still treating their reporting obligations as a “mere tick-box” exercise, while an estimated 40% of eligible companies were failing to comply with legislation at all.

Sadly, it appears that the construction industry is lagging behind other industries in its response to the Modern Slavery Act. TISCreport, a central database for companies to submit their annual report, shows that only 30% of eligible construction companies have published a statement. What’s more, the CIOB states that many of the reports that have been submitted don’t meet basic compliance requirements. A general attitude of complacency and a lack of training were also cited as widespread issues.

What is being done

Despite this rather bleak picture of the Act’s initial impact, progress is being made. In April 2017, the Modern Slavery and the UK Construction Industry Charter was launched, with signatories including CIOB, The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), among others. Their goal is to promote awareness of modern slavery and best practice throughout the industry. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) also launched its Construction Protocol initiative in October 2017, which aims to combat modern slavery and forced labour throughout the sector. Over 140 firms are now signed up to the protocol, and in return are provided with access to free training resources and guidance on how to recognise and eradicate modern slavery within their organisations. More recently, the new Chief Executive of the CIOB, Caroline Gumble, renewed the call for firms to join the Institute’s campaign to tackle modern slavery in her first blog published earlier this month.

Clearly, there is a long way to go to in the quest to eradicate exploitation from the construction industry, but a major, sector-wide change of attitude towards the issue would be a good start. Firms need to start taking their obligations seriously, fully comply with current legislation and take advantage of the many new training initiatives and resources that have sprung up in the last few years. It is only through a genuine, industry-wide effort that exploitation will be eliminated.

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