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Slavery in construction: Complacency makes you complicit

There has been a lot of taboo-busting in the construction industry over the last few years.

I’ve seen some of the transformation first-hand and it has been inspiring.

Businesses and individuals have started asking themselves some hard questions about difficult topics, facing up to reality in a way they simply haven’t done before.

We’ve heard construction leaders open up about their struggles with mental health and watched them take action to break the stigma.

Similarly, organisations such as Willmott Dixon and Wates have set themselves bold targets to try to address a deep-seated gender imbalance in the industry that goes back generations.

Even in the hard-nosed area of finance and late payment, the signs have been positive. Main contractors recognise they need to change and, as the most recent CN100 showed, they are acting to improve their practices.

However, when it comes to the harrowing subject of modern slavery and labour exploitation, as an industry we are still stuck in the dark ages.

I’ve been reporting on this topic for the past year-and-a-half and, honestly, what I’ve learned has been horrific.

It’s not just the obviously disturbing details of the cases: the violence used by the criminals; the foul conditions in which they keep their victims; or the fact they view people as assets, stealing their wages and running up credit-card debts in their names.

There’s also the human cost and the humiliation of it all: the shame the victimised men feel in being done over, having their naivety and lack of knowledge of the systems of a foreign country exploited so callously.

I heard at one trial how one victim returned to rural Romania with only €5 in his pocket, having left his family to work in the UK for three months. On his way home he felt so ashamed he spent this tiny sum on sweets for his children, so he at least had something to show for being away from them for so long.

But that’s not the worst aspect of this crime.

The thing that shocked me the most during my investigation was the fact that certain parts of the industry simply don’t care.

The lowest point I’ve ever reached during my time at Construction News came at a ‘Stronger Together’ workshop designed to educate contractors and the supply chain about the scourge of modern slavery.

“This is something you’ll never stop,” was the arrogant, dismissive opinion of more than one of the attendees.

There aren’t many times when I’ve felt I might lose all faith in our industry, but this was one of them.

Those in attendance had just seen videos and heard accounts of how victims were beaten, abused, sometimes sold from one criminal to another for as little as £25 or a crate of beer. But it seemed, for some surprisingly senior figures from sizeable companies in the room, none of that mattered.

Having modern slavery victims work on their projects was simply to be expected. For me, that kind of attitude goes beyond careless and becomes complicit.

Thankfully, not everyone has such a jaundiced opinion.

In my most recent investigation, I was struck by the bravery of demolition labour supplier Number8 and of Carey Group subsidiary BDL Dry Lining, both of which decided to speak openly after being unwittingly caught up in modern slavery cases.

Their openness was genuinely refreshing and both should be applauded for trying to put things right.

But we have a hell of a long way to go if we are to end this blight on our industry.

During that dismal workshop, I asked one of the attendees who felt there was no point trying to fight slavery if he thought it was still acceptable for people to die on site. “No,” he conceded, “but people still do”.

It’s true there are still fatalities, but let’s look at how much our industry has improved as a result of positive action, based on the assumption that every single death ought to be preventable.

In the 1990s, site deaths each year were in the thousands. By 2000, they were in the hundreds. Last year it was around 30. I won’t have anyone tell me we can’t reach zero.

And if we can achieve that kind of improvement with safety, we absolutely can do the same with slavery.

You can read my full investigative report – Slavery in the supply chain – here, and have your say on the matter.

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