Built Environment

Built Environment Companies Need to Take a Longer Term View on Modern Slavery

Commentary, 29 July 2016

By Emma Crates, Freelance journalist

It is an obvious but uncomfortable truth that there is no quick fix for modern slavery.  It is too enmeshed in corruption to be solved by box-ticking initiatives. It is too financially rewarding to be given up easily by perpetrators. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that slavery generates $150 billion in illegal profits globally.

Business organisations may feel that there is little that they can do to address these issues. After all, many cases of exploitation are usually at the far reaches of supply chains – raw materials production or site labour could be more than ten tiers below their contractual obligations.

Benefitting from the status quo

However – and here’s another uncomfortable truth – tier one organisations are benefiting from the status quo. Eagerness to avoid recruitment costs, a laissez-faire attitude towards labour agencies and pressure to reduce the price of materials are fuelling a deeply unfair system.

The poorest and most vulnerable workers, often tricked into paying illegal recruitment fees and trapped by unsustainable debts, are effectively subsidising some of the most prestigious projects around the world today.

The problems may seem insurmountable, particularly as organisations argue that they are only following local laws and practices. Yet legislation such as the UK Modern Slavery Act (2015) is reinforcing the message that companies need to take more responsibility: holistically, vertically and globally. As UK Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland OBE regularly emphasises in industry meetings, a concerted push is needed from the private sector.

Tackling modern slavery is not a simple auditing exercise that can be laid to rest once implemented. It is not something that can be banished to a CSR report and handled by junior staff. Procedures must be embedded in the heart of operations. They must be led from the top.

Relationship building

Take FSI Worldwide, a labour agency started by former Gurkha Commander Tristan Forster. In order to protect workers from exploitation, Forster has established an integrated operation that stretches from countries of high recruitment (such as Nepal and India) to countries with an insatiable demand for migrant workers, such as Qatar. FSI’s commitment is that no worker should have to pay recruitment fees. In order to achieve this, FSI Worldwide has had to take control of every stage of the process from village to site, because each step opens up a new risk of exploitation. The company also refuses to pay bribes. Once in work, FSI monitors its personnel to ensure that they are being fairly treated.

This impressive initiative has earned Forster international acclaim, from the UN to the White House. But even now, he admits that things can still go wrong. The most trusted and experienced recruitment staff can still be coerced or put under extreme pressure. Vigilance, communication and constant education are essential.

Marshalls, a UK company that supplies hard landscaping materials, has put similar emphasis on relationship-building in its ten-year journey to eradicate child labour from its sandstone supply chain in Rajasthan, India.

In order to gain a better understanding and control of the situation, Marshalls decided to work with a single supplier. The two organisations now share a common enterprise resource planning system. A local NGO is employed to ensure that procedures and policies are understood and followed.

One-size-fits-all policies are counterproductive

Early on, Marshalls realised that overhauling its own processes would not be enough. Child labour is widespread in the region. The causes are intertwined with complex cultural and socio-economic factors: children often seek out work because of lack of access to education, because there is no one to care for them at home, or because their parents are injured; adult wages are too low to sustain a family.

So Marshalls has formed long term partnerships with local specialists to deliver child education, health camps and to promote a better understanding of workers’ rights. It has provided seed funding for a social insurance scheme. A project to establish a fair living wage is ongoing.

The effects of exploitation and misery are similar around the world, but regional variations are complex and nuanced. When tackling exploitation, knee-jerk reactions and one-size-fits-all policies may prove counterproductive.

Organisations need to take a long term view, talking to their supply chains and holding them to account. They also need to consult widely with local NGOs and specialists and develop an in-depth understanding of the communities and regions in which they operate. Proper engagement with the far reaches of supply chains is essential if we are to achieve better outcomes for the most vulnerable workers.

Emma Crates is author of the Chartered Institute of Building report "Building a Fairer System: tackling modern slavery in construction supply chains". Follow her on Twitter @CratesEm. The report can be downloaded from the CIOB website.

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