Construction News

Mon September 20 2021

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Construction's dirty problem with worker exploitation

8 May 18 A new report by the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) highlights the prevalence of modern slavery in the UK construction industry.

It also flags up the dangers of exploitation that are inherent within the industry’s labour model.

The report is entitled The nature and scale of labour exploitation across all sectors within the United Kingdom. As well as construction it looks at maritime, manufacturing, retail and other sectors. Typically, victims are forced to work for little or no pay until they have paid of debts. They are usually immigrants, but not always.

Ian Waterfield, head of operations at the GLAA, said: “Slavery and exploitation continues to thrive in every town and every city.”

It describes modern slavery as “an umbrella term encompassing slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour and human trafficking”. It says: “Victims of modern slavery are unable to leave their situation of exploitation, controlled by threats, punishment, violence, coercion and deception. Slavery violates human rights, denying people of their right to life, freedom and security.”

The GLAA paints Irish traveller families in a particularly bad light. Its report says: “There are believed to be gangmasters operating in the UK who are involved in the movement of workers internationally, particularly within Europe, providing labourers wherever there is demand. The UK construction sector employs approximately three million people and is a high risk industry for labour exploitation.

“The often convoluted supply chains in the industry make identifying potential exploitation and ending illegal practices challenging. Intelligence reports the involvement of Irish traveller families in the exploitation of workers in this industry, particularly in groundwork, paving and driveways.

“Labourers commonly live in caravans on their land, paying up to £600 per month in rent to live in conditions described as inhumane, unsafe and overcrowded. Workers controlled by Irish traveller families are reported to be ordered to clean, look after children and complete chores in addition to their main labour.  In a number of cases workers can receive as little as £5-10 per day, whilst others are not paid at all or are only paid in part.

“The lowest wages are recorded in fencing, maintenance and bricklaying. Some workers have been told that they received less money because clients are unhappy with their work, whilst non-English speakers are also said to be paid less.”

The report looks beyond slavery to other forms of worker exploitation. It says: “There is reported to be widespread use of self-employment as the preferred contracting arrangement in this sector, with a direct link to exploitation. Self-employed workers are cheaper to hire, are not entitled to holiday pay or statutory sick pay, and must provide their own PPE. Despite being registered as self-employed, many workers will have in fact worked exclusively for one company for many years. Furthermore, the manner in which workers are directed to undertake work is unlikely to meet the criteria to be correctly defined as self-employed. Migrant workers in particular may not understand that they are being deceived regarding their employment rights and status.

“A self-employed contractor will also pay an estimated £2,000 per year less tax than an employee doing the same task and earning the same basic remuneration.”

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In October 2017, the GLAA released a construction protocol, establishing a voluntary information sharing agreement regarding how the GLAA will work with parties involved in the supply and use of labour into the UK construction sector. The intention is for there to be a joint approach to maintaining an ethical supply chain where workers are protected against exploitation and abuse.

Stakeholders are to notify the GLAA of any cases of alleged exploitation within their own operation or supply chain and the GLAA will hold quarterly meetings with stakeholders to ensure there is an open dialogue with regards to trends, issues and concerns.

Roger Bannister, who took up the role of interim chief executive at the GLAA last month, said: “The sad reality is that the criminality that drives exploitation and slavery is quite close to home in the towns, cities and countryside in which we live and work. I welcome the report findings and I am proud to help lead an organisation delivering some impressive results.”

Home Office minister Victoria Atkins said: “The barbaric nature of modern slavery means it destroys the lives of its victims, which is why we introduced the world-leading Modern Slavery Act 2015 and increased the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority funding by £2.6m a year to help tackle modern slavery and wider labour exploitation.

“This report is part of the GLAA's crucial work to understand the scale of exploitation of vulnerable workers so that law enforcement can identify and protect victims, and convict their perpetrators. I am pleased that the GLAA has made over 100 arrests since their new powers came into force in May last year.”

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: "This important and authoritative report from the GLAA hits the nail on the head when it comes to identifying how and why exploitation occurs in the construction industry.

"The report is entirely right to identify that not only does false self-employment deny workers basic employment rights but by barring them from receiving holiday and sick pay, these workers are automatically being exploited and further abuses are likely.

"The report is also right to highlight that the extended and convoluted supply chains, makes identifying who a worker's real employer is very difficult, while the use of exploitative payment methods such as umbrella companies makes these matters even more confusing.

"This report needs to be carefully studied by the industry and by government as the current status quo is clearly not acceptable. Employers must reform working practices to ensure that the unscrupulous cannot exploit workers and the government should be forcing employers to take such appropriate action.

"Unite is committed to tackling exploitation in any form whenever it is identified. We will be stepping up our activities in the coming months and naming and shaming companies that are allowing exploitation on their sites. The conspiracy of silence must end."

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