News feature: Practical steps for tackling modern slavery

Following the launch of a new initiative to tackle human rights abuses in the construction industry, the BRE’s Dr Shamir Ghumra spoke to Housebuilder & Developer’s Jack Wooler about the growing movement to tackle modern slavery.

The APRES (Action Programme on Responsible and Ethical Sourcing) network has recently launched a White Paper produced by the BRE and Loughborough University, intended as a major step in combatting human rights abuses. With modern slavery being pinpointed as a problem both in the construction industry supply chain and on sites, there have been calls for a new cultural approach in the industry to tackle this difficult but increasingly prevalent issue. Dr Shamir Ghumra, director of the Centre

for Sustainable Products at the BRE explained how its intervention has been created to offer a practical approach:“We built the White Paper with a lot of industry input, hosting a conference last year where we had quite a wide ranging conversation about the broad areas of modern slavery and ethical sourcing. He continued: “What we wanted to do

was create a framework around those broad areas that would help organisations understand what they can do, and where to start. This whole can-do model runs throughout the White Paper.”

THE SCALE OF THE PROBLEM The UK Government estimates that tens of thousands of people are currently existing in modern slavery in Britain alone. In 2015, over 3,000 people were referred to British authorities as potential victims, and Ghumra warns that these estimates may be conservative. “Only a fraction of instances are reported and investigated, and only some of those are being brought to prosecution.” Modern slavery encompasses broad areas

related to trafficking, exploitation, people who are bonded in some way, and similar categorisations. Ghumra explains further: “You can be legally employed but still be under duress, be it by being exploited, not being paid minimum wage etc. Workers may have their documentation taken away from them, and with it their freedom of


movement. People can also be bonded in some way via a debt or repayment of fees.” Until recently, the Gangmasters and

Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), which oversees the issue, has focused on sectors that were licensed under its former Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) remit, which included textiles, garments and agriculture. However as Ghumra explains, earlier this

year the GLAA increased its scope to include “other sectors with potentially high risk areas in their supply chain,” and one of these is the construction industry. Ghumra explains the sector-specific risks:

“Housebuilders may have a varied supply chain, and could be especially at risk when importing products from overseas, with little knowledge of their source.”He referred to a recent example of firms taking action to address the problem in the retail sector, where John Lewis and Habitat withdrew granite worktops from sale over modern slavery concerns. He says however that an increasing

spotlight is being put on the issue regarding workers on construction sites: “I think we’re seeing more focus on the construction industry as it is more likely to be happening on our sites in the UK. Solutions are being trialled: “I am hearing

now of clients potentially introducing random passport checks.” He says that while having a passport “doesn’t necessarily prove you’re not under duress, it can raise an important flag if people are unable to

produce their passports, or are delaying. That could be because it’s actually under the charge of someone who is exploiting them.”

LEGAL LIMITATIONS When then Parliamentary Under Secretary for Crime and Security James Brokenshire introduced the Modern Slavery Act in 2013 (it came into force in 2015), he said it “sent the strongest possible message to criminals that if you are involved in this trade in human beings, you will be arrested, you will be prosecuted, and you will be locked up.” The Act consolidated the existing slavery and trafficking offences, introducing civil orders and more to punish offenders. The Transparency in Supply Chains

provision of the Act requires businesses to publish an annual statement. Ghumra says it is seriously limited: “To be legally compliant, you can just produce a very basic statement that says ‘we recognise that we have to comply’ – signed by the CEO, and published on their website and off you go. This is obviously not in the spirit of the Act.” He adds however: “There is now a

breadth of modern slavery statements online, and with some companies producing their second statement, we will begin to see a gradual improvement in the quality and transparency of statements.”Baroness Young has introduced a Private Member’s Bill in order to strengthen and broaden the application of transparency in supply chains. Among other things, it will require the Act to apply to Government agencies. Ghumra commented: “About half of

construction industry work is from the public purse in some shape or form. If all the other agencies and offshoots of Government had to comply as well, that would be a big step forward. We are already seeing the devolved

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