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Ethical labour and combatting modern slavery in construction

SCAPE Stock Image Construction worker on site full PPE resized for web copy


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As the leading public sector procurement authority, we recognise our responsibility to raise the standards of procurement, ensuring public sector funds are spent ethically and high-quality outcomes are delivered for your communities and your residents.

We create added value for you, our clients, and bring together partners across the industry and supply chain through our suite of frameworks and strategic partnerships, and by exploring topical issues such as achieving net zero and addressing modern slavery.

What is modern slavery?

Modern slavery is an umbrella term encompassing slavery, servitude, human trafficking, and forced or compulsory labour where victims are controlled by debt bondage, threats, violence, deception, and coercion. According to the ILO (International Labour Organization), the number of people trapped in modern slavery is continuing to rise, with the private sector being especially high-risk.

Understanding the challenge

The UK Government has highlighted the construction industry and its associated supply chains as being at risk of labour exploitation.

According to Unseen, a charity that provide a modern slavery and exploitation helpline, the construction sector accounted for more than 20% of incidences of labour exploitation reported to their helpline in 2021.

It is increasingly important for procurement organisations to understand the key role they play in acknowledging and mitigating this complex issue, and to do this, the industry needs to work together. In 2021, we brought our delivery partners - Balfour Beatty, Graham, Kier, Mace, McLaughlin & Harvey, Morgan Sindall, Sisk, and Willmott Dixon - together to form SCAPE’s Modern Slavery Partnership; a long-term collaborative working group to address how modern slavery is identified, dealt with, and ultimately prevented.

SCAPE has been facilitating this group since July 2022, and after involving other organisations including Achilles, Unseen, Nottingham University Rights Lab, GLAA (Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority), Supply Chain Sustainability School and Mercaston Solutions Ltd, formed a collective approach.

This approach aggregated data and responses from site surveys and management system audits, and over 4,000 construction workers during 2022/23, were collected and analysed. The findings indicated:

  • Less than 50% said they had used documents recognised by the Home Office to prove their Right to Work
    Employers must conduct checks and ensure appropriate documents such as passports, birth certificates and biometric residence permits are used.
  • Around a third said they had only been given verbal terms and conditions of employment
    UK law states that written terms and conditions must be issued to all employees, and although a third not receiving this may seem high, this is a reduction on previous figures.
  • Almost 300 workers (7%) reported having to pay illegal administration fees for employment
    If additional fees are required, workers should be told about these before, as part of the terms of employment.
  • 46% said that they had received modern slavery awareness information or training, and 95% knew the process for raising a concern
    Employers have a legal and moral obligation to provide adequate information on modern slavery and labour exploitation, as well as clearly defined processes for reporting and escalating concerns.

There is a lot of work to be done, but also some encouraging signs that progress is being made. This was the first step in identifying where the gaps in the system are, the most common being the use of incorrect Right to Work documentation.

Next, SCAPE and its partners created a set of recommendations for every project commissioned and delivered via its frameworks to ensure fair and ethical treatment.

Ethical labour recommendations

  • Right to Work checks undertaken in line with government guidance
  • Processes in place to verify wages meet all statutory requirements
  • Written terms and conditions provided, and all workers understand those which apply to their role
  • Due diligence undertaken within sub-contracting and self-employment arrangements
  • Any fees that workers pay are fully understood and agreed to beforehand
  • All workers are aware of how ethical labour concerns can be reported
  • Modern slavery and labour exploitation awareness is part of all inductions

SCAPE delivery partner commitments 2023/24

We know improvements to safeguard workers never stop. Exploiters and traffickers are always trying to find new ways of cheating the system and keeping labour exploitation operating under the radar, so our collective response needs to be robust and focussed.

Over the 2023/24 period, SCAPE and our delivery partners have committed to reinforcing the need for modern slavery awareness and training, conducting consistent Right to Work checks and providing clear communication to the workforce around employment terms and expectations.

We take our duty to the wider supply chain in addressing these complex issues very seriously and will continue to meet regularly to continuously improve employment practices throughout the supply chain.

SCAPE Stock Image Construction worker on site full PPE resized for web copy

Explore our Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement

We aim to ensure that our supply chains and every part of our business are, and remain, free from slavery and human trafficking.