Drivers of forced labor in building materials

The disaggregated nature of the construction industry is not the only driver of forced labor in the building materials supply chain. There is a problem in global manufacturing and commodities systems across the board.

Worker exploitation is profitable because cheap or even no-cost labor subsidizes material costs. It does so in a way that shifts the risk and exploitation down to workers in the supply chain. Low material costs, and the percentage of profit margin attributable to them, may flow not from innovation, but from exploitation.

Forced labor also subsidizes the industry by ensuring an available and exploitable workforce, minimizing recruitment costs and lost days due to labor shortages, as well as tamping down any worker activism, including that which stands up for fair wages, better living and working conditions, or a workplace free from physical or sexual abuse or sexual harassment.

End users in other industries, most notably the buyers and retailers involved in the Fair Food Program, have seen little extra cost in insisting on standards and auditing, and even the initially-reluctant growers have reported that sexual harassment and forced labor have plummeted since they stopped turning a blind eye to abuse by crew leaders (the direct managers of most farmworkers), as long as they got the crops in on time. What the growers who have signed onto the Fair Food Program have realized is that the old system was profitable, but for the unscrupulous crew leaders, not for the farms. Once the workers delinked the commonality of interest between the growers and their field-level managers, the growers realized that having those profits flow to the workers rather than their abusers, would result in a more professional workplace, with less harassment and increased retention, especially of female employees.

Hidden (But Often in Plain Sight)

Another reason for the lack of forced labor transparency in the building materials supply chain may be as attributable to its size and the lack of brand-driven consumer end-products as it is to anything specific to building materials. Put simply, many of the economic sectors that have moved to confront modern slavery, whether through corporate social responsibility, multi-stakeholder initiatives, auditing schemes, industry standards, or even worker-led efforts, are in industries that have been through a national or international scandal, and in which instantly recognizable global consumer brands can suffer reputational and regulatory damage. The Working Group is raising the issue before a tragedy like the Rana Plaza disaster1 or a shocking exposé, such as in The Washington Post’s reporting on the West African cocoa industry, puts the construction sector under the microscope.2

1 The Rana Plaza Accident and Its Aftermath, International Labour Organization (ILO).
2 Whoriskey, Peter and Siegel, Rachel. “Cocoa’s Child Laborers,” The Washington Post. June 5, 2019.