Don't turn a blind eye to modern slavery
When we don’t see - or we ignore - signs that workers are being exploited, slavery and other forms of abuse are allowed to flourish in our industry.
Report from – Tom Harvey
Incidents of modern slavery in the construction industry - not only in distant developing nations but also here in the UK - are regularly reported to Chris Blythe OBE in his capacity as Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB).
In one of these, a team of Eastern European people were working the day shift at a UK construction site, but the company running the site needed to change work patterns and moved them to the night shift. After a couple of weeks it was noticed that their work rate had declined and minor accidents were occurring.
An investigation revealed that they were living in a three-bedroom house with 30 other people. They were ‘hot-bedding’ - taking turns in the available beds with other teams - but the shift change meant coming home from work to find the beds already occupied. They ended up sleeping rough and coming to work exhausted, but couldn’t get free of the situation because they’d been entrapped by a criminal gang.
“This sort of exploitation of people who just want the opportunity to work is now all too common in our industry,” says Chris Blythe, “but as in this case, it can be stopped if someone gets curious and investigates when things don’t seem right, instead of turning a blind eye.”
These reports of abuse are reflected in the recent National Crime Agency announcement that modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK is "far more prevalent than previously thought”. It warned that construction was one of the key sectors for slavery, and that trafficking into modern slavery was now so widespread that ordinary people would be unwittingly coming into contact with victims every day.
“If we ignore this we are not helping the victims of trafficking, who are caught in a very bad situation, but supporting the criminal gangs behind the problem,” says Blythe who has been working hard to drive this message home. In partnership with Stronger Together (an initiative to reduce modern slavery) for example, CIOB has developed a toolkit to help construction businesses tackle modern slavery. It includes videos of trafficked workers’ real-life experiences, showing typical scenarios to highlight the tell-tale signs of exploitation. The aim is to empower people at all levels of the industry to take action.
This is important not only for the unfortunate workers being trafficked, but also for the construction sector itself. The use of trafficked labour and services destroys the level playing field on which companies should be competing. It also puts the reputation, not only of the companies misbehaving in this way, but also of the whole sector at huge risk.
“If we report suspicions about trafficking,” says Blythe, “and refuse to use casual labour and services that might be based on trafficked workers, we will cut the flow of money to criminal gangs and they will lose interest.”
He sees signs that this message is starting to get through. “The encouraging thing is that people are now more inclined to report their concerns, and as a result the numbers of police investigations and referrals to organisations that help the victims of trafficking have shot up. People are realising that speaking out about this sort of abuse is the right thing to do.”
But modern slavery is very complex issue with risks in every part of the supply chain, here and around the world. There is much still to be done to make the construction sector fully aware of the problem and how best to avoid being complicit – however distantly and unwittingly – with people trafficking and the abuse of workers. In an industry that often has multi-layered, far flung and opaque supply chains, this can be a difficult task.
But help is available. For example at this year’s Modern Slavery and Ethical Labour Symposium, industry leaders (including Chris Blythe) will discuss how companies can reduce the risks of abuse in their supply chains and demonstrate that they are behaving responsibly - thereby enhancing their reputations, improving efficiency and creating competitive advantage.
The event will also see the ratification, by many leading construction industry organisations, of the Construction Coalition Charter to Raise Awareness to Eradicate Modern Slavery in the Sector’s Global Supply Chains.
For more information and to attend the symposium in London on 18 October 2017, please visit www.msa4construction.com