LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ignorance and aggressive business models are fuelling modern slavery in Britain’s construction industry as failings by major contractors leave British and foreign workers vulnerable to forced labor, a trade body and campaigners said on Monday.
Top construction companies are pricing out ethical practice down their supply chains, and shifting responsibility to spot labor abuses onto their less well-resourced suppliers, found a report by Britain’s Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB).
The trade body said there was complacency and disbelief in the industry that major projects were being exploited by human traffickers despite construction being identified by police and the government as of one the most at-risk sectors in Britain.
“Unscrupulous labor providers, operating in the gray area of the law, are creating misery for thousands of British and foreign workers,” said Chris Blythe, the CIOB’s chief executive.
“Contrary to public perceptions, modern slavery is not confined to small illegal operators ... criminals are attracted to big business because of the greater profits that they can earn,” Blythe said in a statement as the report was published.
Britain’s construction industry contributes more than 100 billion pounds ($135 billion) to the economy each year and employs at least 2.3 million people, government figures show.
Modern-day slaves have been discovered on major infrastructure projects such as hospitals, power plants, and recycling centers among other sites, according to the report.
“The construction sector is recognized around the world as one of the highest risk industries for workers to be exploited in forced labor,” said British anti-slavery chief Kevin Hyland.
Many firms are failing to comply with a landmark 2015 law that requires firms with a turnover of at least 36 million pounds to produce an annual statement showing what they have done to ensure their operations are slavery-free, the CIOB said.
“The fundamental challenge the construction sector faces is that its default business practices facilitate forced labor exploitation,” said Andrew Wallis, head of the charity Unseen.
“Many companies are not proactively engaging with the spirit of the transparency in supply chain legislation ... the perfect environment exists for people to be exploited,” he added.
About one in eight of nearly 1,300 slavery cases recorded by Britain’s anti-slavery hotline in 2017 involved the construction industry, according to charity Unseen, which runs the service.
Modern-day slavery underpins Britain’s construction industry where tens of thousands of European migrants work in dangerous conditions without pay or a proper contract and suffer verbal abuse and beatings, anti-trafficking charities said last month.
At least 13,000 people across Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of forced labor, sex exploitation and domestic servitude - but police say the true figure could be in the tens of thousands with anti-slavery investigations rising.
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Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org