Insight

Labour abuse watchdog extends its powers to construction

10 July 2017 | By Emma Crates

Now the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority is extending its powers to cover construction. Chief executive Paul Broadbent explains to Emma Crates what this means.

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) has new powers. After 11 years of regulating temporary labour providers in agriculture, it can now investigate human rights abuses in any area of British industry.

With its heavy use of temporary and migrant labour, construction has long been identified as a high-risk sector. UK-based contractors could soon face crackdowns on a range of exploitative and unfair practices, including bogus self-employment, according to GLAA chief executive Paul Broadbent.

But Broadbent argues that legitimate companies have nothing to fear. He is keen that construction focuses on finding, rather than hiding from, problems.

“We want to work with companies. We realise that criminality can and does infiltrate legitimate supply chains. Even if they have good systems, processes and people in place, some exploitation will still get through, because criminals are entrepreneurs by their very nature,” he says.

Building an intelligence picture

It’s an exciting time for Broadbent, who was formerly assistant chief officer of Nottinghamshire Police before joining the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) in 2013. His agency acquired its new powers along with its new name on 30 April. Having doubled its operational team, it is building a detailed intelligence picture from diverse sources including the police, government agencies, NGOs, and hotlines.

Broadbent says the agency is already noticing trends in certain subsectors, including demolition and renovation. He gives the example of a criminal gang that buys a street of terraced houses and “imports” or traffics workers to the country, probably from Eastern Europe.

“We want to work with companies. We realise that criminality can and does infiltrate legitimate supply chains. Even if they have good systems, processes and people in place, some exploitation will still get through, because criminals are entrepreneurs by their very nature.”

Paul Broadbent, GLAA

“Those workers work in squalid conditions in derelict houses, moving down the street as the properties get renovated. In our experience they won’t be paid anything like the minimum wage – maybe only £3-£4 an hour,” he adds.

He warns that risks of labour exploitation cannot be ruled out on large as well as small building sites. “There are a lot of different nationalities working on major projects. We need to do more work [in this area].”

The Home Office estimates that there are 13,000 people in modern slavery in the UK. Although the Gulf region or the Indian subcontinent are more often in the spotlight for modern slavery issues, Broadbent lists similar abuses found in this country: inadequate, late or withheld wages; threats of violence and intimidation; unfair deductions for food for PPE equipment and overcrowded accommodation.

“It may be more subtle than in other parts of the world, but it does exist here,” he says.

Even local workers are not immune from exploitation. Broadbent cites failure to pay the national minimum wage and bogus self employment as examples.

“The Citizens Advice Bureau is telling us that this is a huge problem nationally. The Exchequer is being defrauded because people are not paying the tax that they should. It also puts workers at more risk, because their rights are being eroded,” he says.

Broadbent says that GLAA investigators will not be systematically visiting and inspecting construction sites.  However, if they discover poor practice, they can issue a labour market enforcement order – similar to the HSE issuing an improvement notice. For companies failing to comply, prosecutions or other actions could follow.

But he stresses that much of the GLAA’s work will focus on awareness-raising and prevention measures. As well as working with CITB and Stronger Together (Broadbent endorses CIOB’s Antislavery Toolkit), GLAA will be developing sector-specific training to help organisations better understand the risks in their supply chains.

He is keen that individuals call the GLAA hotline for advice, promising complete confidentiality where necessary.

Call the GLAA on 0800 432 0804 to report a problem or 0345 602 5020 for general advice or visit www.gla.gov.uk   

The CIOB toolkit Tackling modern slavery in the construction sector can be found at stronger2gether.org/construction

“If something doesn’t look quite right, give us a call and we can discreetly and subtly work with you to establish whether or not there is a problem. We can respond in any way that respects the confidentiality of the business. Having worked with retail for the past 11 years, we understand the sensitivities around brand reputation,” he says.

As awareness of modern slavery issues increases, Broadbent is anticipating a spike in victim referrals and a “marked increase” in prosecutions over the next two years. But from around 2020 onwards, he is expecting that number to fall.

“By then our systems and initiatives will have really started to kick in. We’ll be seeing the benefit of our labours because exploitation will be coming down. But at the minute we’re still discovering what the true scale is, so it’s going to go up,” he comments.

Although there are no plans to license labour providers in the construction sector, Broadbent says can envisage a time when “we might start having a conversation about it”.

The GLAA issues around 1,000 licences to agricultural and horticultural labour providers annually, protecting around 500,000 workers. “We’ve noticed, over the past three to four years that the compliance levels of those licence holders has increased,” he comments.

Closing the loophole

Ironically, it is the agency’s success in agriculture that may be encouraging criminals to move into non-regulated areas such as construction. Broadbent is hoping that the GLAA’s new powers will help to close this loophole.

“We want to create a hostile environment for exploiters and a safe environment for a legitimate business to flourish,” he says.

Comments

Leaving the EU is another step in controlling illegal work practices. Also the enforcement that all workers must be fluent in English is another must If only to increase safety.

Roger Ward, 13 July 2017

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