Q&A on the Stronger Together Construction Initiative
16 February 2017
The UK Modern Slavery Act has encouraged many businesses to examine how their activities impact the rights of others. The Act requires companies to engage with key challenges relating to risks of forced labour and trafficking. Customerfacing businesses are often further ahead on this journey and their experience can be a useful example to others seeking to address these important issues. One such example is the food processing sector where the experience, tools, and guidance of Stronger Together is being adapted for the construction industry.
IHRB’s Neill Wilkins recently discussed the Stronger Together Construction Initiative with Chris Blythe, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) and Jantine Werdmuller von Elgg from Stronger Together.
Here is what they discussed:
The Modern Slavery Act has encouraged many more sectors to examine their operations. Where do you see the key challenges for the industry?
We welcome the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and the Transparency in Supply Chain Provisions requiring businesses to publish an annual statement if they have an annual turnover above a threshold (£36 million). The statement must confirm the steps taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking are not taking place in the business (or in any supply chain) or declare that no steps to confirm the existence of slavery or trafficking have been taken.
Media reports can give the impression that modern slavery is more a problem in other sectors – e.g. fashion, electronics, agriculture. It’s actually a serious problem in construction and one of the key industries of interest for Anti Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland.
CIOB has been talking to the industry about slavery since 2014 at our members AGM which took place in Qatar.
CIOB has produced an in depth report including possible areas of best practice on the issue and the programme we launch on 16 February offers practical help to the construction industry. See http://policy.ciob.org and www.stronger2gether.org/construction.
And yet, despite the very obvious employment of large numbers of casual labour and opaque supply chains, the construction sector has never really been seen to take a lead when it comes to human rights. What has changed?
I think there are a number of reasons:
- Construction has a strong SME focus with over 90% of the industry classified as SMEs.
- The Modern Slavery Act 2015 is helping to galvanise the industry – but also creating a lot of anxiety and uncertainty – companies need help in making the right start.
- Although the Act is not forcing companies to take action, pressure from the public and investors will grow. Reputational and image risk may become an issue and the industry should be on the front foot and be seen to be doing the right thing.
- Companies may worry about their bottom line, but there is an indisputable business case for reform – it will protect businesses over the long term.
Stronger Together is a popular initiative with farmers and food processing operators in the UK. What are the reasons for that success?
Collaboration and pragmatic guidance. Stronger Together brings together international and national businesses, suppliers, subcontractors and labour providers. All nine major UK supermarkets - Aldi, Asda, Co-op Food, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose - are part of the initiative and have invited their food supply chain to be part of the programme. The programme provides businesses with pragmatic guidance, resources and workshops to develop a robust strategy to prevent, uncover and report modern slavery in their operations and supply chains.
The new Stronger Together Construction Initiative therefore looks like a sensible development. What do you hope the programme will bring to the construction sector?
Although modern slavery exposures in the construction sector in the UK have been relatively low compared to more consumer facing industries, it does not mean the risk is not apparent. The construction industry has been identified as one of the sectors most vulnerable to modern day slavery around the world. In the programme, we aim to bring together construction companies that want to be leaders in tackling modern slavery in the sector, by providing a safe platform and support network for sharing good practice and overcoming challenges with peers and experts. This includes both companies that have been working on this issue already and those that are committed and at the start of their journey.
Why do you think this is important and what do you think the initiative will bring to the industry that was lacking before?
It is important as an estimated 21 million people live in forced labour across the world. In the UK, up to 13,000 people are estimated to be in modern slavery. Labour exploitation was the most common type of exploitation amongst victims in the UK in 2015, and the construction sector one of the most prevalent sectors for forced labour. We want to support the sector to change that.
Other than the moral imperative, there is growing statutory and civil law like the UK Modern Slavery Act requiring businesses to address the issue. And increasing human rights benchmarking of companies is influencing clients, customers, NGOs, investors and shareholders, resulting in reputational, operational and financial drivers for change.
Great work has been started by IHRB and other organisations working with construction sector companies in the Middle East and Asia. Our programme, using the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as a strategic framework, will focus on supporting businesses to detect and deter modern slavery in their UK operations and supply chain, as well as putting strategies in place regarding their global supply chains. The programme includes detailed yet pragmatic business-focused guidance and resources including a new video and worker awareness materials for use in induction and training.
Has it been very different developing tools for the construction sector or are many issues similar across all industries?
As Chris said, the construction industry is unique as it has a strong SME focus with over 90% of the industry classified as SMEs. Also, the sector includes long complex supply chains. Some of the risks however are similar across industries, e.g. that workers performing low skilled, low status, low waged tasks are the most likely to be subjected to forced labour. All the tools have been carefully developed in partnership with the CIOB to ensure they are tailored to the sector.
Could you therefore see similar initiatives being useful in other sectors – hospitality for instance?
Yes, absolutely. We are very open to working with other sectors.
We know that CIOB is keen to promote far stronger engagement around these issues within the sector. What would you say to construction companies who feel this is not an issue that really affects them?
The construction sector must be vigilant as it is always vulnerable to abuses because of the complex and multi-layered nature of the industry.
There are many, many steps between the client and the people at the very bottom who end up having to deliver buildings and infrastructure. You've got clients, you've got main contractors, you've got principal sub-contractors, you've then got subcontractors, sub-subcontractors and so on, all the way down. If modern slavery is occurring even right at the bottom of the supply chain, companies need to know that they will be held responsible.
I am encouraged both by the level of interest and the intent of the industry to tackle its legal obligations and the programme is a helpful and practical way of ensuring the industry delivers. The CIOB will continue to play its part with Government, NGOs and the industry and this fits very much alongside our role as a Chartered Professional Body whose credentials are very much driven by strong ethical principles.
The initiative launches on 16 February. How can companies who are interested get involved?