The industry must battle with its dark side
Construction in the UK may have raised its game around safety and welfare, but there's no place for complacency where modern slavery is concerned.
There are a few folk in construction who could possibly claim to have Jedi-like powers, but what of our own “dark side”? The CIOB and Lexis Nexis have both produced reports on modern slavery in the worldwide construction industry (see the CIOB’s report Modern Slavery, the Dark Side of Construction here); their findings are damning and shameful in the 21st century.
Now I would be the first to say that the construction industry in the UK is streets ahead of some countries in almost every aspect of employment – but can we afford to sit back, be a little smug and say: not us, we have policies, there are paragraphs in our contracts and we do CSR? No sir, no most certainly not us, how very dare you – and yet Home Office Immigration Enforcement will tell you different.
You may question the use of the phrase “dark side” in comparison with cultures that are not as developed as, say, Europe. You may think that maybe it’s a shade of grey at the lighter end of the spectrum and applies only to those who work on the small or domestic projects.
Again the Home Office will disagree and could cite some very significant projects where it has found some dodgy goings-on. There are still groups of men (mostly) hanging around certain parts of town waiting for the minibus to pull up and hopefully be selected to get a “day’s work”, somewhat reminiscent of my Grandad waiting at the dock gates back in the 1950s looking for a “start”.
What are we to do? We know that investors insist on best return, that those in procurement are measured against low cost and that most folk in the management chain are rewarded for being under budget. That of course can all be achieved ethically through great engineering, efficient delivery and world-class project management.
We know that the industry has raised its game to excellent on safety and site welfare facilities and continues to excel in design, engineering and delivery. Is it now time to shine the light on how workers are employed on site?
Protecting the vulnerable
I have no gripe with the self-employed – I admire entrepreneurial spirit. I have no gripe with zero-hours contracts, as long as safeguards are in place to prevent advantage being taken. The use of temporary workers is fine – we know how difficult pipeline is to manage in a fluid economy. But are we doing enough to protect those vulnerable people in our country from exploitation?
You may say “yes”, you may say “our project has those safeguards in place”, but does it? In the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi: “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.” I am sure all of you reading this will have the relevant clauses in your contracts and yet we all know that bogus self-employment exists. There are still folk standing on street corners and we know that the unscrupulous lurk among us.
Will you check the right-to-work documentation? Will you audit the payroll records of all those in your supply chain, even tier 3 and 4? Will you stop and take time to ensure your workforce are paid above minimum wage, have the training required to carry out the task they are performing and are contributing to the exchequer appropriately?
Or will you leave the battle with the dark side to someone else? Maybe it is time to follow Yoda’s advice: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Gary Sullivan OBE is chairman of construction logistics contractor Wilson James
Image: Scott Prokop/Dreamstime