Is the South African Construction Industry Affected by Modern Slavery?

Is the South African Construction Industry Affected by Modern Slavery?

South Africa’s construction industry is lagging in the implementation of anti-slavery laws.  Most countries like the UK, Australia, Canada and the US have made modern slavery into law. The question is: how deep is our construction industry affected by modern slavery?

South Africa is one of the richest economies on the African continent. It is home to many foreign nationals who emigrate to look for greener pastures. Most of them find themselves looking for jobs in the construction sector.

Furthermore, most of the South African youth are unemployed and the easy path to get in the industry is through construction labour. This is due to the intensive demand for labour than higher skills in some construction projects. A look at the above scenarios shows loopholes in avoiding modern slavery.

What is slavery?

Slavery is an umbrella term for activities involved when one person obtains or holds another person in compelled service. Someone is in slavery if they are:

  • forced to work through mental or physical threat
  • owned or controlled by an ’employer’, usually through mental or physical abuse or the threat of abuse
  • dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as ‘property’
  • physically constrained or have restrictions placed on his/her freedom

Let’s take a look at the yardstick we have in the UK Modern Slavery Act. The following definitions are encompassed within the term ‘modern slavery’ for the purpose of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA).

These are:

  • ‘slavery’ is where ownership is exercised over a person
  • ‘servitude’ involves the obligation to provide services imposed by coercion
  • ‘forced or compulsory labour’ involves work or service extracted from any person under the menace of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself voluntarily
  • ‘human trafficking’ concerns arranging or facilitating the travel of another with a view to exploiting them

Modern slavery, which includes forced labour and human trafficking, is embedded in the workings of the global economy. It is a form of organised crime based on profiting from the exploitation of vulnerable people.

While it is easy to think of modern slavery as something that is “out there” – in the mines of India, clothes factories of Bangladesh, and construction sites of Qatar – the reality is that it pervades much closer to home. But is it truly happening in our construction projects?

How can you see modern slavery in the construction sector in South Africa?

In the construction industry, an area of particular vulnerability to modern slavery is labour employed through sub-contractors or agents. While it may seem difficult to impact practices in locations far down the supply chain, responsible recruitment is an area where contractors and suppliers can take action right on their doorstep.

Background checks on agencies should be part of the standard protocol. Talk to staff, especially agency workers, to check that they haven’t had to pay fees to secure employment.

It is important to implement procedures for ensuring that you know who is on your construction site and be able to identify warning signs. The factsheet for construction describes several of these warning signs, including asocial behaviour, malnourished appearance or even a single bank account for multiple wage payments.

People trapped in modern slavery are often vulnerable and not likely to assert their rights. It is therefore important to encourage open dialogue with workers and an environment where they feel safe to confide. Talk to people; it is at the human level that we need to engage in tackling this problem.

How does the UK modern slavery act affect us?

Another key message is that the purpose of the MSA Statement is not for companies to claim to be free of modern slavery, but demonstrate that they understand the issue and are taking action to address it. It is about knowing the areas of risk in your company activities and supply chain and being committed to improvement.

The Act has been formulated with the intention of fostering open and honest introspection without the threat of prosecution. It seems to acknowledge that admitting that you have a problem is the first step towards solving it. The trick will be moving from cleverly worded statements with all the right buzzwords to real action in tackling this issue. It sounds like the challenge facing sustainability at a more broader level! Like sustainability, what matters is the action that’s behind the statement.

The Act is surely a step in the right direction and will hopefully be a catalyst in the global sphere – since the supply chain is global!  As an organisation working to end modern slavery in South Africa, we advocate for the government to emulate it.

The abolitionist William Wilberforce said: “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” In the construction industry, we know that there is a risk of modern slavery. What do we choose to do about it?

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