While human trafficking doesn’t seem like an issue that would impact most contractors, more than half of the labor trafficking industry occurs in the construction, manufacturing and mining industries, according to a Forbes article.
Human trafficking is a $150 billion dollar business that the International Labor Organization estimates has enslaved more than 21 million people. Of these, about 14.2 (68 percent) million are exploited for labor. Labor trafficking includes indentured servitude, contract slavery, domestic servitude and physical enslavement. Indicators of enslavement include the following:
- Threats or actual physical harm to the worker;
- Restriction of movement and confinement;
- Debt bondage (workers have to pay off inflated debts or loans);
- Withholding of wages or excessive wage reductions;
- Retention of passports or other identity documents; and
- Threat of reporting to authorities, especially if the worker has an irregular immigration status.
The construction sector is one of the largest drivers of development and one of the largest employers, especially in the developing world where 70 percent of construction workers are located. In some cities such as Dubai, construction activity comprises nearly a quarter of their domestic product. The sheer quantity and the mobile, primarily migrant nature of workers increases the vulnerability to trafficking and modern day slavery.
Shocking stories of the more than 4,000 construction workers exploited in Qatar for the World Cup in 2022, the roughly 1200 Nepalese and Indian workers who have died in that country and the discovery of bonded labor in Abu Dhabi during the construction of NYU’s campus have raised awareness of the severity and prevalence of the issue. Given the transnational, multi-year contracts, the question remains: What can be done?
In the past, efforts focused on a combination of audits, monitoring and labor value standards. These efforts have been met with little or no impact in disrupting labor trafficking. One of the most promising areas where solutions may be crafted is in supply chain transparency.
The California Transparency in Supply Chain (TISC) law is the first U.S.-based legislation requiring retail and manufacturing companies in California with annual gross receipts of $100 million or greater to post the following on their websites: verification, auditing, certification, internal accountability and training within their supply chains. The UK Modern Slavery Act of 2015 expands TISC and includes construction as a reporting industry. The trajectory of global legislation indicates that it is only a matter of time before all industries are included. Basic disclosures allow savvy consumers and business partners to assess companies based on their compliance statements and supply chain transparency. Similarly, executives may use this as a way to select partners and collaborators for projects. The more transparent a supply chain, the clearer it is who is accountable for what and whom.
The challenge is the complexity of most construction supply chains. There are multiple tiers that intersect and also form hierarchies with a myriad of actors including contractors, designers, managers, key consultants, suppliers and subcontractors. Construction also has the added complication of companies that make the materials used in projects.
For example, in a building project, does one have to take into account those that manufacture materials such as concrete, bricks or construction equipment? If this is the case, then the more than 25 million people working in bonded labor in 100,000 Indian brick kilns must be considered. If materials were to be included, their supply chains must be made transparent. Albeit complicated, this kind of comprehensive understanding will shed light on issues of vulnerability and risk as they relate to supervision and oversight.
Role of Construction Executives
Unveiling the supply chain provides a chance for construction executives to mitigate slavery conditions. Research on supply chain management has revealed that one of the most successful predictors is buy-in and support of senior management. Supply chain relationships in construction change very little, and relationships fostered by executives determine trust factors for the company as a whole, even more than actual transparency.
The ability to significantly disrupt labor trafficking in the construction industry already exists in its own technology. Each project must use construction management software. More sophisticated software will include cloud-based capturing tools and interoperability. There are software platforms that have evolved to such an extent that their technology can be a significant weapon in the arsenal against trafficking. For instance, projects can be held accountable for meeting compliance with anti-trafficking legislation through payment and lead management.
Another possibility is to draw on data analytics to create a type of transparency registry that would include prequalification and requalification aspects in timed intervals. Technologies such as geo-locations, drones and artificial intelligence can also be used. Construction executives who must select ERP software anyway to physically build the world now also have the opportunity to make it a better one.
This is a point in history when it is not a question of whether or not technology can stop human trafficking or slavery, but whether or not construction executives will make the choice to do so.