“Human Rights” is a term usually associated with the States (USA). It is a term we usually hear on TV news about war crimes, humanitarian crisis, refugees, etc. With my interest in construction and human rights research, I have grown to be quite fond of this term. The Human Rights Watch Report on construction workers’ human rights abuse in Qatar and the amendment of construction laws in the UK all brought human rights in construction into the spotlight. According to Wikipedia, human rights are: “moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of human behaviour and are regularly protected as legal rights in municipal and international law.” From a construction Human Rights Practitioner perspective, human rights involve labour issues – this entails socio-economic wellbeing of workers in the construction industry.
Without further ado, let me delve into some past experiences I encountered in the construction industry that prompted me to develop a passion for anything human rights in the construction industry. I was an eager young man, fresh from college (cum laude) and ready for the corporate world. At the time, construction sites were nowhere near my desired environment to work in for the proverbial “internship.” I wanted to go in the heart of Sandton into an office. I always associated the construction sector with mud, shovelling, sweaty armpits, gumboots and wheelbarrows. I always saw work.
However, hunger waits for nobody. I found myself and my faithful friends soliciting for a job, any job by the traffic light stops. Construction jobs came knocking day in and day out. After numerous no’s, I agreed to go work at a housing project for the municipality as a labourer. I was going to be a builder’s aide.
The construction subcontractor I worked for was small. We lacked basics like overalls, gumboots or hats. We worked in our denims and t-shirts. Work started at 7am and we knocked off at 5pm. There was no tea break and lunch was 15 minutes. The foreman was a no-nonsense man who rarely laughed, except with the white “bosses”. He was our master; he would swear and threaten to hit or fire anyone who was either slow or confused at work. The working conditions were appalling, to put it lightly.
Many of my colleagues had been working under those conditions for years. They looked sick, tired and thin. Complaints were mumbled in the changing quarters. Certain issues were raised; working long hours, working while it was raining, extreme cold/hot temperatures, no protective wear, working on unsafe scaffolds, no overtime bonuses, etc. The list was long. One day I asked Timothy (the guy I had befriended) why people were afraid to speak up and voice their grievances. He told me that the fear of being fired in this high unemployment rate economy was the reason. It was either you keep quiet or go out. Some of the workers were foreigners who protected their jobs with their lives. The fear of losing their jobs, much like the locals, kept them silent. An even greater fear for foreigners, however, was the fear of being deported due to lack of working papers in the country.
Hearing and witnessing these stories tore my heart apart. I had done human rights at college. I knew I was supposed to do something to protect my fellows. Clearly human rights abuse was not only in Qatar, Syria or Afghanistan. It was around us. I decide to do research on human rights abuse in the construction sector .The information I got made me realise I must do something. I started a community organisation to protect workers in the construction sector. The rest is history.
This article is to bring awareness to employers and employees that human rights issues are real in the construction sector. Working to end abuse and modern slavery abuse, employers need to address the plight of workers. Most youths are afraid to go into construction due to the stereotyping of hard labour and ill-treatment. They need to be informed and be inspired to see it differently.
The construction industry offers opportunities that are waiting to be utilised. Schools, colleges and the youth in general must be exposed to the careers in the sector through advocacy and awareness campaigns, seminars and books. The UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Global Compact are the panacea for a sustainable world where the construction sector is bringing hope, prosperity and development. It starts with human rights introspection.
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