Modern Slavery? How your Construction Firm could be at RISK and How to Prevent it

There are more slaves now than any time in history with around 45 million of them trapped in construction. Forced labour, deprivation of freedom, deception and coercion are surprisingly all rife through the construction industry. Typically, contractors are unaware of the nefarious practices that are going on, thus the cycle continues. Last week, we asked the experts and listened to their take on the topic that has been deemed one of the great human rights issues of our time.

Sitting on the panel were five industry experts, with whom we discussed how the construction sector can mitigate modern slavery supply chain risk. Moderator of the session, Sam Hemmant, Marketing Leader for Entity Due Diligence & Monitoring at LexisNexis, is particularly interested in Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking issues and aligns closely with RELEX Group initiatives to support UN sustainable development goals. Karen Gray, Senior Supply Chain Management Specialist at LexisNexis, is the central person for all Supply Management solutions. Shamir Ghumra, Director at Centre for Sustainable Products at BRE, is an expert on Responsible & Ethical Sourcing for the construction industry and is a member of a number of British and European standards committees whilst also sitting on the board of the Supply Chain Sustainability School. Jantine Werdmüller von Elgg, Strategy, Policy, Partnerships & Communications Manager at Stronger Together, is an anti-human trafficking and modern slavery specialist with over six years’ experience working for private, non-governmental and not-for-profit organisations. Last, but not least, Ian Nicholson, founder and Managing Director/Owner at Responsible Solutions Ltd, has devoted his business to working with others that want to make a difference to their own business efficiency, whilst improving their environmental and social impact.

Addressing the ethical labour issues in construction is essential to prevent employers making money out of people who are vulnerable. Acts such as the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act from 2010 ensure that companies publicly disclose what measures they are taking to abolish forced labour in the supply chain. There is a huge hidden nature and complexity of modern slavery in the construction supply chain due to the vast amount of subcontracting that occurs. This increases demand for companies to be more transparent, and indicate how they will make continuous improvements to move forward.

Construction firms should all be responding to the issues being faced, regardless of their size. Trying to research into the supply chain and tackling high-risk situations is important to show you are actively working on acts such as the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015. Jantine asks individuals in senior positions to, “put the right practices into place, not for reputational reasons however, simply to be doing the right thing.” As Shamir says, it is much more than just the Act, it is the intent of the Act.

Part of the problem experienced by firms is lacking the knowledge regarding what good practice looks like. It starts with actively being responsible, and knowing that you have a problem to tackle even though it may be challenging. Moreover, Ian demonstrates that often certain issues are only tackled by companies because they are exposed in the media; modern slavery in construction however is not one of those usually exposed. This does not mean we pretend it does not exist, and reinforces the idea that more attention needs to be turned to this issue.

In order to support the sector to help combat modern slavery, it is essential to recognise the value of collaboration and alliances not only within companies but with other companies in the industry. There are also direct lines that can be called (such as Modern Slavery Helpline) if exploitation is suspected, or if more pressing and there is a threat to someone, it is important to call the police. In terms of measuring progress, Karen suggests a no tolerance policy, which although might affect profitability, will enhance the reputation of the company. Looking internally within the company to tackle any issues will involve supply chain mapping to identify the sources of all labour and materials.

On asking our panel if there was only one thing they would advise doing after the webinar, a variety of responses were presented. It was agreed that there is a strong need for leadership and commitment from the organisations, with senior figures taking the responsibility for putting measures into place. Shamir highlights the need to have courage to undertake these challenges, and said, “to conduct your business with honour.” They also reinforced the requirement for a supply chain map alongside a solid risk assessment process.

Tackling modern slavery in construction requires leadership of large organisations to go beyond the first tier. Creating transparency in the supply chains will entail hard work, but there is a need for training throughout the whole chain. Workers are imprisoned within a series of events from which they can not escape; these forms of exploitation are far too common, met with inadequate policing and prosecution. It further requires the assistance and proactiveness of governments, businesses and the media. This will ensure that people are aware of the problems occurring right under their noses and take a stand to ensure we put a stop to it issue.

Shivani Sondhi,

Marcus Evans
101 Finsbury Pavement,
London, EC2A 1RS

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