Last year 75 cases of slavery were reported on UK construction sites. Strong decisions early in a project can help stop exploitation, writes Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

The issue of modern day slavery has been making headlines again, and not just in relation to Qatar. With its complex supply chains stretching across countries and continents, construction provides what the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) terms a “perfect breeding ground for exploitation and human rights abuses”.

Home Office figures suggest that up to 13,000 people in the UK are in conditions termed as “modern slavery”. And the charity Unseen, which hosts the modern slavery helpline, reports 75 cases in the UK construction sector in the last year alone, indicating more than 290 potential victims of slavery.

The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills reported in 2015 that labour exploitation is the second most common form of modern slavery in the UK, after sexual exploitation. The most common forms of labour exploitation reported by victims identified by the National Crime Agency strategic assessment in 2013 were in the block paving, agriculture, food and construction sectors.

In interviews with construction workers, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) has found instances of people working without basic rights and protections, sometimes without contracts, with many afraid to speak out about poor treatment for fear of losing their job.

Umbrella companies often provide employment and payroll services for these workers who have no choice but to sign up to this system if they want to work. These umbrella companies then make significant deductions from workers’ wages and charge high administration fees, often leaving workers with pay far below that agreed.

The following case study from FLEX demonstrates what modern day slavery looks like in London today. Its research shows that workers feel forced to accept abuse and exploitation when they have no other options.

Y works on a large construction site in London. He has worked in the industry since he came to England in July 2016. He has paid large sums of money to get certificates for jobs he was promised, but never received. He is now “some £2,000 to £3,000” in debt. He is employed through an agency that does not pay him for overtime. He is charged £20 in administration fees for receiving his salary. To cover his rent and food expenses, he is forced to accept salaries far below the national minimum wage.

Y told FLEX: “You have no other choice. You have to work. You have to pay rent, buy food, so you work for £50, £60. I had to accept a worse-paid job than the one I had before because I have to work. There was a guy who gave us jobs, but eventually he gave us nothing at all.”

Engineers against Poverty reports that contractors are often oblivious to unscrupulous labour agents and sub-contractors who are withholding money or forcing employees to work at a rate lower than previously agreed. Some workers are not paid for months, years, or even until the project is completed. Many are literally starving while continuing to send as much money as possible back to their families.

All the organisations I approached for information agreed that sub-contracting and complex supply chains made the industry ripe for labour exploitation. The trend towards outsourcing and constant pressure to undercut on price were significant risk factors for vulnerable workers, they said. As Engineers against Poverty puts it, “The worst paid are effectively subsidising the multi-nationals and taking the brunt of commercial pressures.”

Key indicators of labour exploitation to watch for on site include no protective equipment, no breaks/no lunch, workers being taken to and from work, workers staying in work premises overnight, verbal abuse, the boss overseeing work in an aggressive manner, workers staying in houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs) and workers not being paid or being paid very little.

Several reports speak of the tendency of companies to turn operations and supply chain monitoring into a box-ticking exercise – thus missing key warning signs. CIOB is adamant that contractors should open up their supply chains and that transactions should be mapped across the whole length of these chains. Transactions between sub-contractors and their agents are where first scrutiny should be applied.

City Hall and the Met Police, in light of what they see as a significant issue that is not diminishing, are increasing their policing and pursuit of modern slavery in London with joint investigation teams across other European countries. I didn’t approach any other police forces but I would be surprised if they were not partnering in this work.

This might seem an appalling state of affairs which architects can do little to address. However, it is clear that ethical procurement is vital to eradicating abuse. CIOB says architects and engineers should not be working in isolation from the rest of the team but should be aware of procurement protocol from the beginning. There must be regular auditing to ensure suppliers are being held to account. CIOB maintains that while the whole of the supply chain should be held accountable for procurement decisions, strong leadership in the initial stages of a project can do much to mitigate risk in later months and years. When clients engage more closely with the issues and contracts reflect ethical expectations, the direction of travel is set.

The numbers may seem relatively small, the issue largely confined to smaller businesses in the UK, but this is a problem that stretches across the globe – and a well-run ethical site in the UK may not mean an exploitation-free supply chain. Each statistic represents an individual – a son or daughter, mother or father, husband or wife being exploited for the sake of a profit margin or delivery target.

Construction reaching back across millennia has already contributed too much to the sum of human suffering – I would love to be part of a profession doing what it can to stop that abuse here.

Further information

Dhaka Principles for Migration with Dignity:

Transparency in supply chains report:

CIOB toolkit:

CIOB reports: