Focus: Modern Slavery in the Construction Sector

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Construction worker. Image @ Fouquier
Construction worker.
Image @ Fouquier

Despite the government’s efforts to curb the trend, labour exploitation in the UK is on the rise. Just last week the National Crime Agency (NCA) reported that it has reached unprecedented levels. According to this report, labour exploitation now accounts for nearly as many victims as sex trafficking.

Very few cases of forced labour are documented in the construction sector. The mainstream media so far hasn’t given much attention to it either, yet from extraction to building sites, risks of modern slavery are extremely high at each production stage.

For example, many brick kilns in India use bonded labour at a large scale, as pointed out by AntiSlavery International: Debts from employee to employers are being passed on from generation to generation, enslaving whole families. Besides, as most of these jobs are considered part of the informal sector, work conditions are not regulated and often horrendous: unbearable heat in the kilns, 15-16 hours average working day, hazardous chemical substances, poor housing conditions, and often violent treatments.

On another part of the chain, here in the UK, migrants from Eastern Europe have been identified as the most vulnerable group likely to wind up in exploitative circumstances. Many come to the country under the impression that they will be receiving a full work package in construction which includes housing and transportation, only to later find themselves under a mountain of debt and to the mercy of the gangmasters who supposedly helped them.

This situation of dependence coupled with the fact that some do not speak the local language or do not know which authority to turn to for help mean that the figure of exploited individuals registered by the NCA can only be underestimated, and the real figures could be significantly higher. In addition, as the Gangmasters Licensing Authority continues to have its powers limited to regulating only the food and agriculture sectors notwithstanding numerous calls from NGOs to extend its reach, most offenses within the construction sector remain under the radar.

While it is very unusual for big construction companies to be directly involved in such criminal activities, some may end up becoming unwitting accomplices by enlisting the services of unscrupulous gangmasters. With the Modern Slavery Act now in force, employers should be extra vigilant in making sure none of their workers, no matter how far down the supply chain, are being taken advantage of. Using the information provided here by our colleagues at Modern Slavery, we have put together an infographic that could be useful in spotting some of the major signs of labour exploitation.

Modern Slavery: 7 Warning Signs