Men working in a quarry in India

How to join the fight against Modern Slavery in the construction sector

Chris Harrop of Marshalls plc
Thursday 17th October, 2019
Chris Harrop OBE, Marshalls Marketing and Sustainability Director has an OBE for services to the prevention of modern slavery and exploitation and is keynote speaker at the BRE Group and Sustain Worldwide 'Responsible and Ethical Leadership for Global Construction Supply Chains' Conference on 6 November. Ahead of the event, Chris has shared his thoughts on modern slavery in construction, and 3 steps to making sure your business is working to tackle it.

When it comes to industries deemed to be at ‘high risk’ of finding modern slavery in their supply chains – the construction sector is right near the top. And with multiple layers of sub-contracting, it’s not hard to see why.
But what can the average construction business do to help stop modern slavery? Read this article for advice and insight into how we do it at Marshalls.

 Modern slavery in context

Modern slavery is defined by charity Unseen as activities “when one person obtains or holds another person in compelled service.” More common terms such as human trafficking, forced labour and child exploitation are all seen as acts of modern slavery.
The UK is a wealthy and powerful country. Yet the UK government estimates that there are tens of thousands of people in slavery equating to roughly 2.1 victims for every 1,000 people*.  And when you move on to examine supply chains beyond the UK and across the world, the numbers get much higher.
But no longer is it acceptable to put the examination of every aspect of your supply chain on the ‘too difficult to tackle’ pile. And whilst being seen as a business with good ethics may well give you the competitive edge over others, the most successful businesses in this field are the ones who do it for much more than that; those who strive to do the right thing in all aspects of their work. 

What does modern slavery in the UK construction industry look like?

According to a report by The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the UK is described as being one of the main destinations of trafficked workers in Europe. In the construction sector, workers can be paid as little as £5-10 a day for a working week that could top 60 hours. Little or no regard is given for health and safety or PPE, which leaves workers vulnerable to accidents and fatalities. Self-employment is often the preferred contracting arrangement, which means the workers receive no holiday or sick pay and must provide their own PPE, if at all.

How tackling modern slavery is good for your business

There’s a common misconception that ethics cost money and of course it is true that paying a fair wage does cost more than forcing people to work for free, but being ethical brings a lot more to a business than just a cosy feeling of doing the right thing. Businesses with ethical policies, and who ensure that their suppliers share their ethical attitude, reap the benefits in a myriad of different ways including improved efficiency and productivity, better staff retention and an overall better quality product. And understanding how supply chains operate in broad terms as well as specifics can lead to the creation of industry-wide tools such as the Ethical Risk Index, created by Marshalls for the natural stone sector. The benefits of the index extend to customer as they’re able to make informed choices beyond just price and quality.

3 steps to take to tackle modern slavery in the construction sector

1. The modern slavery statement

By law, every business making more than £36million a year is bound by law to annually publish a Modern Slavery statement on their website. This is the minimum that businesses should be doing, yet anecdotal evidence suggest that a third of eligible businesses still have yet to complete it.

2. Get organisational buy-in to go beyond box ticking

Signs of modern slavery
Leadership buy-in is essential if you’re looking to go beyond just publishing the modern slavery statement on your website. Even the most transparent sector is likely to find bad practices along the chain, but it is how a business is equipped to tackle those issues that really matters. Ethics goes beyond leadership though – procurement teams are clearly major players, but educating your whole workforce about how to spot the signs and report it, both in and out of work, will go a long way. At Marshalls we have a training programme for logistics staff which recognises their unique position to spot modern slavery – be it in a merchant’s yard, along motorways or elsewhere. By equipping them with the knowledge to spot the signs and know how to report, we are making sure there are more eyes and ears out there. This training is available outside our organisation, a great starting point is sharing our training video.


3. Walk your supply chain

Whilst desk research and analysis is a great starting point for understanding your supply chain, there is no substitute for directly experiencing it. Understanding every stage your products go through is a large task but an important one, and you can learn a lot from walking around a business; looking for signs that workers are under duress or not following health and safety procedures. Whatever your business, people will be at the heart of every stage of your supply chain and it’s important to understand if those people are exposed to risk. And when we say people this can also include children – the International Labour Organisation reports that 1 in 4 victims of modern slavery are children.
If you’re starting from scratch – start with an audit of your home country. It’s the easiest to navigate as you already understand the culture, language and the way the system works.  If you don’t have the resource to manage this in-house, there are 3rd party agencies who specialise in supply chain audits focusing on ethics. When it comes to your global supply chain, certain countries are deemed more 'at risk' than others, but there are steps you can take to mitigate that risk and form successful and ethical relationships. A useful starting point for this is our article about Sourcing Goods from Countries with a High Risk of Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking

Tackling modern slavery is everybody’s business - now is the right time to step back and look at the position of your business and evaluate what your role could be. Small steps are perfectly fine, as long as they are going forwards.

Useful links

Hear Chris Harrop OBE discuss ethical sourcing and responsible leadership in the Modern Slavery Stories podcast
Hope for Justice UK
Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority

If you see someone in danger, please call 999. If you want to report an instance of modern slavery, please call the National Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700 or report online

Image promoting BRE Group 2019 conference with Chris Harrop from Marshalls as keynote

*According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index

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