Modern Slavery in the Construction Industry

Updated: Mar 10

When we hear the term modern slavery, our expectations may all be slightly different. Perhaps we think of agriculture, prostitution, nail bar workers, or cleaners.


I wonder how many would consider construction as an industry particularly at risk.


Increasingly, forced labour is an escalating category of modern slavery, and fears of its continued growth stem from the uncertainty of the Construction industry in a post-Brexit, COVID economy.

‘Modern slavery is an umbrella term encompassing slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour and human trafficking. Victims of modern slavery are unable to leave their situation of exploitation, controlled by threats, punishment, violence, coercion and deception.’[1]

Victims of modern slavery lose control of their human rights and are denied their right to life, freedom, and security, and a conservative estimate from the Home Office in 2014 outlined an estimated, potential 13,000 victims of trafficking[2] within the UK. Less than 20% of this total, 2,339 cases, were successfully referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) between January and December2014, a number that has risen to 6,985 in the period of January to December2018.[3]

'The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is a framework for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support.’[4]

The Modern Slavery Act, implemented on 29th October 2015, ‘introduces a number of measures to combat slavery and human trafficking. In addition to creating new criminal offences, powers of enforcement and measures to protect victims, it introduces requirements intended to eliminate slavery and trafficking in global supply chains.’[5] Companies with an annual turnover of over £36 million, that had a financial year ending 31st March 2016 and beyond, and who carry out business within the UK had to commit to a Modern Slavery statement, which outlines what they have done to combat slavery over the past financial year; intending to hold suppliers accountable to consumers, and to use consumer pressure to drive business change.


Despite the changes to immigration policy in the months following the referendum, the number of people from other EU countries working in the UK has risen over the past twelve months, with the number of Romanian and Bulgarian workers increasing from 257,000 to 347,000 whilst the number of Polish workers declined from 1,054,000 to 1,035,000.[6]This is increasingly worrying, as EU migrants have found themselves progressively vulnerable from coercion into modern slavery within the forced labour category [7] and represents approximately 30% of exploitation within the Western and Southern European region.[8]

Agriculture and Modern Slavery Protection

The GLAA license protects workers from exploitation by operating a licensing scheme in agriculture, horticulture, shellfish gathering and associated processing and packaging sectors.[9]

A ‘gangmaster’ supplies labour or workers within the agricultural, forestry, horticultural and food processing and packaging work and shellfish collection industries and requires a GLAA license. This was introduced after the Morecambe Bay tragedy and led to the introduction of the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 and the formation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, renamed to the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) in May 2016.


The license ensures the workers that gangmasters bring in receive a written contract, the National Minimum wage, decent accommodation,safe and legal transport and working conditions, and must be treated fairly and equally. Gangmasters who break the rules or operate without a licence can face up to 10 years in prison.


The Immigration Act 2016 has expanded the GLAA’s remit dramatically, providing it with powers and specialist officers to investigate severe exploitation. More significantly, its remit now covers the entire UK labour market. Increasingly worrying when we consider that although the GLAA has had a 6,000% increase in the number of workers it was responsible for, it only received a 60% increase in its own staff. This means is unlikely to be able to continue to deal with the increased demand, especially as recent statistics find that referrals relating to exploitation in the first half of 2020 equalled the total amount for 2017.[10]


The GLAA license was heralded by the agricultural, forestry, horticultural and food processing and packaging work and shellfish collection industries as the answer to solving problems relating to modern slavery within the industries themselves.


Certainly, although it has a long way to go in an increasingly difficult pandemic world, there have been real success stories, and many workers forced into slavery have been freed, including Edmundas Mikiulkevicius, one of eleven Lithuanian trafficking victims who won a High Court case against their employer in 2019. Workers were employed to catch chickens for DJ Houghton Catching Services, a Kent-based company run by Darrell Houghton and Jackie Judge.[11]

Mikiulkevicius explained how he was forced to work 100-hour weeks, ‘almost continuously for days and nights at a time, allowed only to sleep upright in their minibus seatswhile travelling between farms.’ That he, and other workers ‘often went hungry and were denied toilet breaks,’ and when allowed periods of rest were forced into ‘overcrowded, flea and bed-bug infested housing in Maidstone, while aLithuanian enforcer working with the Houghton’s used violence, threats, and aggressive dogs to keep them under control.’[12]

Will a GLAA license help the Construction Industry?[13]

Potential modern slavery sufferers sat waiting for work

Recent research from the GLAA has found that the construction industry is particularly at risk for forced labour. Indeed, a Construction Industry Headline Trends document, from the GLAA, found the trend for workers to be

‘related overwhelmingly to the London area, with intelligence also concentrated in smaller numbers in the West Midlands, Nottinghamshire, Essex, and Bedfordshire. Potential victims are often Romanian, male, and can be of any age.’ [14]

This is reinforced by a 2018 report from CIOB[15]that stated that in the EU, construction ranks second only to the sex industry as the industry most prone to exploitation. Similarly, BBC reporters working in conjunction with Construction News in December 2019 were able to buy construction labour, indicated to be from workers living within the bounds of modern slavery, for ‘£70 a day for 15 hours’ work. £4.50 an hour. [We were assured] The men will work seven days a week with no breaks.’[16]


Discussion within the industry, including at London Build 2021, has suggested that the application of a license, like the one used within agricultural, forestry, horticultural and food processing and packaging work and shellfish collection industries, would result in far- reaching changes for workers in the sector.


The introduction of a Gangmasters license to the construction industry would mean that those involved within the sector would receive a written contract, the national minimum wage, decent accommodation, safe and legal transport and working conditions, and the fulfilled expectation that they must be treated fairly and equally. This would also remove many factors that mean that certain workers become involved in modern slavery. These factors include being considered self-employed, and therefore exempt from at least a minimum wage, holiday, and sickness pay, and future pension entitlements, having poor English skills, which can cause confusion with payslips and other important documentation, and the fear of those who may have entered the construction industry from recommendations, or coercion, by other nationals from their homeland.


By having a responsible gangmaster, these workers could earn a decent living, develop their English skills so they can understand documentation such as payslips, and can remove them from the reach of fellow nationals who do not have their best interests at heart, all while having an appropriate standard of living.


However, simply introducing a construction Gangmasters license may not be enough, as the agricultural industry has found.


The GLAA is encouraging employers in the construction industry who wish to remove modern slavery from supply chains, to join their Construction Protocol, introduced in October 2017.

Poster to counteract modern slavery in construction from the UK Government


The aims of the Construction Protocol[17] commit signatories to:

  • work in partnership with the GLAA to protect vulnerable workers.

  • Agree to share information, where possible, to help stop or prevent the exploitation of workers.

  • Work together to manage information sensitively and confidentially.

  • Commit to raising awareness within the supply chain.

  • Maintain momentum through this protocol by communicating regularly.


Since the introduction of the Construction Protocol, more than half of companies surveyed have increased training and awareness within their organisation and/ or amended or updated their Modern Slavery statement.[18] But can we do more?

‘Organisations will not defeat slavery by acting alone. We need to stand together, and to start making some difficult choices.’[19]

If we are to tackle such a deep-rooted, and secretive problem effectively, perhaps we require a combined approach. As an industry maybe we need to encourage the introduction of a construction-focused license for subcontractors who find short-term labour, while also signing up to enact and maintain the aims of the Construction Protocol. While we address the situation with an industry level focus, we ought to look within our own organisations, at our own supply chains, and ensure that we are doing all we can to extend and protect the rights of short-term staff, to ensure the working conditions they experience now meet the minimum requirements set out by employment law, and ensure that future staff who are yet to join us receive these rights from day one.

_____________________________________________________________________________

[1] Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority, The Nature and Scale of Labour Exploitation across all sectors within the United Kingdom, updated May 2018, <https://www.gla.gov.uk/whats-new/the-nature-and-scale-of-labour-exploitation-across-all-sectors-within-the-united-kingdom/>08.12.2021

[2] Home office (2018), 'Modern Slavery: an application of multiple systems estimation,’<https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/modern-slavery-an-application-of-multiple-systems-estimation>15.12.2021

[3] Home Office - National Referral Mechanism, Table 1, ‘Number of referrals to theNational Referral Mechanism, by sex and age at time of exploitation, year ending December 2009 to year ending December 2018,’ from <https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/modernslaveryintheuk/march2020>08.12.2021

[4]Government webpage, ‘Guidance: National referral mechanism guidance: adult(England and Wales),’ <https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/human-trafficking-victims-referral-and-assessment-forms/guidance-on-the-national-referral-mechanism-for-potential-adult-victims-of-modern-slavery-england-and-wales> 13.12.2021

[5]TwoBirds.com, ‘Modern Slavery Act 2015,’ <https://www.twobirds.com/en/news/articles/2015/uk/the-modern-slavery-act-2015>08.12.2021

[6] TheGuardian, ‘Number of EU workers in UK rises by 112,000 since Brexit vote,’published Wednesday 15th November 2017 by Alan Travis, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/15/number-european-union-workers-britain-rises>08.12.2021

[7] Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority, ‘The Nature and Scale of LabourExploitation across all sectors within the United Kingdom,’ updated May 2018,page6. <https://www.gla.gov.uk/whats-new/the-nature-and-scale-of-labour-exploitation-across-all-sectors-within-the-united-kingdom/>08.12.2021

[8] Europol, Situation Report: Trafficking in Human Beings in the EU (February 2016) page 23.

[9] Gangmasters& Labour Abuse Authority, ‘Guidance on who needs a licence,’ published April 2019.

[10]Research from Gary Craig, Professor of Social Justice and Visiting Professor atNewcastle University published in Open Democracy.net, ‘Revealed: How the UK’s agriculture sector relies on modern slavery,’ published 16.09.2020, <https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/revealed-how-the-uks-agriculture-sector-relies-on-modern-slavery/>13.12.2021

[11] The Guardian, ‘Lithuanian workers win exploitation case against Kentgangmasters,’ published 11.04.2019 by Felicity Lawrence, <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/apr/11/lithuanian-workers-win-exploitation-case-against-kent-gangmasters-darrell-houghton-jacqueline-judge-chicken-catching>13.12.2021

[12] As above.

[13]Image from BBC News, ‘'Exploited' workers propping up the building sector,’ by Katie Prescott, published 02.12.2019, <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-50200217>17.12.2021

[14] GLAA, Construction Industry Headline Trends document, <https://www.gla.gov.uk/media/5073/industry-profile-construction.pdf>15.12.2021

[15] Chartered Institute of Building, ‘Construction and the Modern Slavery Act,’ published May 2018 by Emma Crates.

[16] ConstructionNews.co.uk, ‘How I ‘bought’ slave labour in London: An undercover investigation,’published 19.12.2019 by Zak Garner-Purkis <https://www.constructionnews.co.uk/agenda/investigations/how-i-bought-slave-labour-in-london-an-undercover-investigation-19-12-2019/>15.12.2021

[17] Image from Construction Protocol Induction pack, GLAA, <https://www.gla.gov.uk/i-am-a/i-use-workers/construction-protocol/construction-protocol-induction-pack/> 17.12.2021

[18] 45/72, and 31/72 respectively. Data fromm GLA.gov.uk, ‘Construction Protocol survey results,’ 2020, <https://www.gla.gov.uk/i-am-a/i-use-workers/construction-protocol/construction-protocol-survey-results/>15.12.2021

[19]Chris Blythe OBE, CIOB chief executive, quoted in Chartered Institute of Building, ‘Construction and the Modern Slavery Act,’ published May 2018 by Emma Crates, page 5.

Cover Image from Pexels.Com courtesy oflalesh aldarwish

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