Recognising modern slavery on construction sites

As cases of modern slavery continue to increase worldwide, identifying the causes and signs of the illegal practice can help save lives and protect companies against reputational damage. While modern slavery is present across a multitude of sectors, some, like construction, are far more susceptible to providing a space for modern slavery to occur.

Understanding modern slavery in construction

A report from data analyst company LexisNexis (opens a new window) claimed that around 23% of the $150 billion generated annually from modern slavery globally comes from the construction sector.

According to the charity Anti-Slavery International (opens a new window), there were 10,000 known cases of modern slavery in the UK in 2019, however, the charity says the true number of those forced into various types of labour is far higher. The most common type of modern slavery is forced labour, with men more likely to be used by criminal gangs than women, according to data from the Home Office (opens a new window).

The construction sector remains an active space for modern slavery crimes due to several factors, including:

  • Poor oversight or high number of contractors;

  • Harsh working conditions making it difficult to determine forced labour;

  • Lack of training in understanding modern slavery;

  • Lack of enforced regulation compared to other sectors.

Spotting the signs of modern slavery

While there are measures companies can take to prevent modern slavery making its way onto construction sites, it is important to be aware of the signs that some employees could be victims of forced labour.

Isolated behaviour: Workers who refrain from speaking to others, remain by themselves during the workday, or are picked up and dropped off at work each day are all signs of possible forced labour.

Little or no belongings: People with very few belongings, including a lack of phone, money, and a change of work clothes demonstrate signs of being coerced into forced labour.

What companies can do to tackle modern slavery

Tackling modern slavery is an issue being fought on multiple fronts. The UK government and the European Union are working on separate legislation to hold companies to greater account when it comes to filing information on human rights and anti-modern slavery measures.

As pre-emptive measures before these pieces of legislation are passed, companies can take further actions to protect victims of modern slavery, and themselves from reputational damage, which could turn into regulatory issues once legislation on modern slavery is standardised.

Improved training: Many companies settle for minimal modern slavery training, usually consisting of a video, which workers will watch as part of an onboarding process. However, making training more interactive will increase the impact it has on employees and their ability to act on signs of modern slavery.

Training should involve regular sessions in the workplace or a workshop carried out by a charity or specialist organisation.

Dedicated officers: Dealing with modern slavery can be tricky when employees are unsure of whom to speak to about it. Having a dedicated officer on-site to deal with concerns and follow up on reports of possible modern slavery will provide a clear point of contact for workers who may see signs of forced labour practices.

Voluntary sign-up of the Modern Slavery Statement: Many companies have opted against signing a statement for their company’s standards on slavery, with critics suggesting that company directors do not want to be held responsible, both on criminal and fiduciary grounds, for how modern slavery is tackled on construction sites.

The move, on the other hand, would ensure greater oversight into how construction projects deal with contractors, sub-contractors, and the people brought in for labour jobs during contracts. Ensuring workers have passports and other measures would also limit the potential for modern slavery to occur and demonstrate a real intent from companies to address forced labour issues.

Tackling modern slavery is a long-term task. However, taking steps to recognise the signs of modern slavery will help companies root out this issue.

Lockton Global Real Estate and Construction has partnered with Ardea International (opens a new window), a specialist sustainability business, and human rights consultancy with expertise in modern slavery. We are committed to assisting our clients in reducing the risk of modern slavery in their supply chains. To learn more about modern slavery and how your company can address any concerns, please contact David Hayhow. (opens a new window)