Last reviewed 23 December 2019

Unite, the UK’s construction union, is calling for fundamental changes in the way that the construction industry is organised and for the introduction of licensing of gangmasters, following a major exposure of how modern slavery operates in the industry.

The exposé was jointly conducted by Construction News and BBC Three, who used undercover journalists from the UK and Romania to reveal the extent of modern slavery in construction.

While concerns about modern slavery are usually associated with smaller, residential work, Unite believes that the way that the industry operates means that there is a real potential for such practices that could be occurring on even the largest projects.

One example of this is the way that HS2 is operating. Most tier one contractors on HS2 are relying on labour supply companies to deliver labour. While there is little scope for modern slavery within a reputable labour supply company that employs all of its workers directly, the problem arises when labour supply companies sublet the recruitment to a third party, making it difficult for the tier one contractor to monitor.

Unite is aware of at least one labour supply company on the HS2 project that subcontracted the recruitment of workers to employment agencies, which in turn used a payroll company.

This results in there being few, if any, realistic checks on who is working on the project, who is actually engaging the workers, how they were recruited and what terms they are employed under, beyond a check they have the correct passport.

As a result, Unite is calling for the gangmasters licensing regime to be extended to construction. Licensing currently only covers the agriculture, food processing and shellfish collection sectors.

Under licensing, only registered gangmasters and employment agencies can legally supply labour and only those organisations which meet strict criteria are granted a licence. If an agency or gangmaster is then found to have been mistreating its workers, the licence can be swiftly revoked.

Companies which operate in the sectors where licensing exists are also required to ensure that they are only working with licensed gangmasters.

Unite National Officer for Construction Jerry Swain said: “The revelations about the extent of modern day slavery and how it operates in construction must be a wake-up call to the industry and government.

“Until the unnecessarily long labour supply chains are tackled the potential of modern day slavery will exist in every area of our industry.

“One major way to help tackle the problem is to extend gangmasters licensing to construction and to force the rogue employers out of the industry.

“The industry needs to be honest, if a labour supply company needs to get a third party to supply the labour, they are not really a labour supply company”.