With estimated numbers in slavery in the UK higher than ever before, how can the construction industry spot the signs of a crime that is so hidden?

on 07 August, 2018

Louise Gore, Equiano Project Manager at The Jericho Foundation, explains the warning signs that point to slavery in construction, and what to do if you suspect it is happening.

Recent figures from The Global Slavery Index now estimate the numbers in slavery in the UK to be 136,000. This is ten times previous home offices estimates. New home office research also estimates the cost to Britain of each instance of slavery to be around £330,000. This places each modern slavery crime as second only to homicide in terms of harm to its victims and society.

Traffickers and illegal or unlicensed gangmasters target a range of industries. Forced labour is currently the most commonly recorded exploitation type and with the construction industry accounting for approximately 10% of total employment in the UK, it is an industry at high risk of labour exploitation.

Anyone can become a victim of modern slavery, however there are some common factors within the construction industry. Victims of this crime are often Eastern European men who have been promised well paid work in the UK. They are forced by the traffickers to work as labourers for example, for very little or no money. Through violence, threats to family members, coercion, or bonded by debt they are often forced to live in overcrowded and squalid accommodation. Many will have had their documents removed and bank accounts controlled.

It is unlikely that large companies are intentionally or directly employing trafficked people. However contractors, sub-contractors and the agencies that are so frequently used to supply labour could find themselves targeted by unscrupulous gangmasters. Some traffickers and illegal gangmasters will be offering a good supply of labour for low rates, others may be controlling the movements, freedom and finances of individuals, unknown to the agencies or contractors employing them.

So how do we begin to tackle the problem, particularly when the statistics are so overwhelming? Each one of those statistics is an individual, whose journey and experiences are unique – no one story is the same. Through gaining an awareness of modern slavery and the signs to look out for, we have a chance of turning life around for a person trapped in exploitation.

What are the indicators that someone is a potential victim?

Transport: Victims may rarely be allowed to travel alone. Are a group of workers regularly dropped off at unusual times, either very early in the morning or late at night?

Legal documents: Is the person in possession of their own legal documents? These may often be held by the trafficker as a means of control, or victims will be forced to use fake or false identification.

Appearance: Does the person appear malnourished or unkempt, show signs of physical or psychological abuse, or have very few possessions? Perhaps they always wear the same clothes, or clothes unsuitable for their work.

Pay: Are there a group of workers who all use the same bank account? This may be an illegal gangmaster collecting their wages. Alternatively, there may be signs of wages being taken off them by a third party for accommodation, food, transport or to repay alleged debts.

Behaviour: Does the person appear afraid, withdrawn, rarely interact with colleagues or appear under the influence of another? Does a third party always speak on their behalf? Perhaps they give either well-rehearsed or inconsistent information, even unsure of basic facts such as their address. Do they appear to have a fear of the authorities or seem scared for their families?

Medical care: Are there signs of serious or untreated injuries? Is the person vague or inconsistent about how injuries occurred or do they seem reluctant to seek professional healthcare advice?

Often several of these indicators will appear together. If there are any suspicions that a person is a victim, the important question is then “What can you do?”

There are some simple checks to protect workers that should be done as an employer in the construction industry.

1. Right to work: Check that all staff are legally entitled to work in the UK. Have reassurances been received from any recruitment agencies used that appropriate checks have been made on staff supplied?

2. Contract: Ensure that all staff, including agency staff, have not had to pay any fees to obtain employment, either directly or indirectly. Issue all workers with a written contract of employment and make sure that they are aware of their statutory rights including sick pay, holiday and any other benefits.

3. Address check: A number of staff giving the same address may be an indicator of high occupancy accommodation. This is often the experience of someone in exploitation.

4. Check agency quotes: Assess agency quotes and fees that offer suspiciously low rates.

If there are concerns, however small, that you work with or employ someone who could potentially be a victim of forced labour or another form of Modern Slavery contact the Modern Slavery Helpline on 0800 0121 700 or visit www.modernslaveryhelpline.org

If you think you may have identified a trafficker or illegal gangmaster contact the police on 101.

For information and help on ensuring your supply chain is slave free visit https://www.stronger2gether.org/ or www.slavefreealliance.org/.

Raising that concern, or passing on that piece of information may be the key to unlocking someone’s freedom from slavery.

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