Persistent vigilance: ending forced labour

Stamping out slavery

25 September 2018

Surveyors must remain vigilant to prevent modern slavery in construction supply chains, writes Steven Thompson

The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB)’s 2015 report Modern slavery: The dark side of construction stated that 'Our sector is rife with human rights abuses. Bonded labour, delayed wages, abysmal working and living conditions, withholding of passports and limitations of movement are all forms of modern slavery.'

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 aims to stamp out this illegal practice, which is common in UK employment sectors such as agriculture, retail, hospitality and construction. Although many people may be aware of modern slavery – or at least questionable employment arrangements – in areas of UK life such as domestic help, hotel staff, fruit-picking and carwashing, chartered surveyors may not believe it takes place in construction. The nature of the procurement model usually adopted, however, means that they do not necessarily know what is happening with subcontractors or sub-subcontractors.

Incidents and awareness of modern slavery in construction have recently become more common, and are related to the increase in migrants coming illegally to the UK in search of work. These migrants aim to stay under the radar of the relevant authorities and so are more vulnerable to serious labour abuse; for example, wages may be paid directly to their supervisor, or any wages they do receive themselves can be negated by being charged excessive sums by the supervisor for food and rent in substandard lodgings.

Such workers are effectively under house arrest, with a daily routine consisting of work, food and sleep, under constant supervision. They therefore feel trapped, and unable or unwilling to escape – particularly if their passports are held by their supervisor – and they suffer the ever-present risk of being deported back to their home country.

A protocol for construction

The UK’s Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) launched a Construction Protocol in 2017, which includes a commitment to share information and concerns about any suspected abuse.

For example, while walking around a construction site, a project manager or quantity surveyor might notice some operatives acting as if scared, or who seem unwilling to draw attention to themselves. This might manifest itself at the start or end of the working day when a supervisor appears to be keeping an over-zealous watch on those being transported in a minibus. This is more likely to happen if a subcontractor is operating on a labour-only basis with non-skilled trades, such as labourers or the site clean-up gang.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 aims to stamp out this illegal practice, which is common in UK employment sectors such as agriculture, retail, hospitality and construction

A project quantity surveyor may also become aware of strange payment provisions being used where an individual site operative is not receiving money directly. Surveyors working in commercial management at contracting organisations are also more likely to be aware of such practices occurring on site or in their direct supply chain.

In addition to remaining aware while on site, surveyors may have an opportunity to introduce suitable provisions at contract formation to better monitor the provision of site labour; although this may be of limited use when the abuse is taking place a long way down the labour supply chain. All surveyors are nevertheless under an obligation to report any suspicious activity to the GLAA.

While the police do raid premises, usually those where the workers are living, a 2017 report from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary concluded that the introduction of the 2015 act has yet to lead to significant improvements in the police response. The report also noted that where matters were addressed by the police, too much emphasis was placed on safeguarding the victims rather than prosecuting the perpetrators of the crimes.

Call for action

While many construction professionals do not control or are not responsible for the direct employment of construction labour, they should be alert to such practices happening on site and raise any concerns with the GLAA.

RICS encourages its members to take this issue seriously and ensure that the construction supply chains on their projects are free from modern slave labour.

Steven Thompson is Associate Director of the Built Environment at RICS

Further information