LONDON, April 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Modern-day slavery underpins Britain’s construction industry where tens of thousands of European migrants work in dangerous conditions without pay or a proper contract and suffer verbal abuse and beatings, anti-trafficking charities said on Monday.
At least a third of London’s 100,000-odd European migrant construction workers from nations including Romania and Poland have done jobs for no pay and experienced verbal and physical abuse, a survey by Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) found.
Britain’s construction industry, which the government says contributes at least 100 billion pounds to the economy each year and employs 2.3 million people, is one of the sectors where modern slavery is most likely to be prevalent, activists say.
“It is shocking that so many of the people building our homes and offices have not been paid for their work, faced abuse or had to work in dangerous conditions,” Caroline Robinson, director of FLEX, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We need proactive labour inspection across the construction industry so that workers can report abuse early before modern slavery takes root,” she said, adding that many labourers were too scared or did not know how to make complaints.
Britain has 0.4 labour inspectors per 10,000 workers - half of the number in Poland and a third of those in Norway - said FLEX, whose study surveyed 127 European workers in London.
“The government must improve regulation and oversight,” said Cindy Berman of the Ethical Trading Initiative, a group of trade unions, firms and charities promoting workers’ rights.
“But companies must also open their doors for trade unions to be able to represent workers and negotiate better terms and conditions,” said Berman, its head of modern slavery strategy.
At least 13,000 people across Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of forced labour, sex exploitation and domestic servitude - but police say the true figure could be in the tens of thousands with anti-slavery investigations rising.
About one in eight of nearly 1,300 slavery cases recorded by Britain’s anti-slavery hotline in 2017 involved the construction industry, according to charity Unseen, which runs the service.
“Yet much of the construction industry is still in denial ... and has been lagging behind the food and apparel sectors (in addressing modern slavery),” said Klara Skrivankova, UK and Europe manager for charity Anti-Slavery International.
Labour trafficking in industries from agriculture to construction is on the rise across Europe and has overtaken sex exploitation as the main form of slavery in countries including Britain and Belgium, the Council of Europe said last week. (Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)