New Ethical Sourcing Standard Constructs a Framework for Addressing Modern Slavery

10 Oct 2019 8:18 am by Mark Dunn

The Global Slavery Index estimates that 45.8 million people are caught in slavery today. The ILO estimates that 40.3% percentage are in forced labour. Recently, the world’s leading building science centre, BRE Group, launched a new Ethical Labour Sourcing (ELS) standard—BES 6002— to address the problems of labour exploitation and human trafficking. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation divides businesses conducting forced labour into two broad types: direct, private producers and intermediaries, such as labour agencies. Due to today’s multi-tier supply chains, identifying forced labour can be a challenge. For companies that have set a goal of eliminating modern slavery from their supply chains, developing appropriate human rights due diligence is key.

Dr. Shamir Ghumra, Director of Sustainable Products at the Building Research Establishment (BRE), notes that “human rights due diligence and ethical approaches to organisational and supply chain management are morally and strategically significant.”

The Construction sector’s ethical practices have come under the spotlight, particularly from high-profile stadium construction and infrastructure projects in Qatar. Increasingly, the sector is being challenged to address human rights violations and environmental impacts. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the UK’s investigative agency for labour exploitation has identified the construction sector as high risk in respect of modern slavery. In the UK, the construction sector contributes around £100 billion to the economy.

What is the ELS Standard?

BRE’s vision is “to enable positive change in the built environment.” Toward that end, BRE developed the Ethical Labour Sourcing Standard in response to the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act that sets a benchmark for ethical business practice in the sourcing of labour. The standard has been created primarily for those organisations that work in the UK, with a recognition that connected supply chains are often global.

Over 50 stakeholders were involved in the consultation in the development of the standards, including the Gang Masters Licensing Authority, HS2, non-government organisations and academics.

The BRE Ethical and Sustainability Standard provides a framework for the verification of Ethical Labour Sourcing and to give a route to the verification of products and services.

The Standard has been created “to recognise those who wish to receive third party assurance of their practices and provide a maturity pathway to make continuous improvement.” As such the standard can be used as a business verification tool.

The Standard is a rating-based scheme with certification and provides a consistent benchmarking platform. It contains a Maturity Matrix to give organisations a continuous action plan and help them meet their aspirations over the longer term.

The framework comprises criteria for evaluating the maturity of performance of the organisation under 12 issues. These are:

1. Organisation structure

2. Management policies

3. Management systems

4. Assurance, compliance and auditing

5. Human resources

6. Immigration

7. Procurement

8. Supply chain management

9. Bribery & corruption

10. Learning & development

11. Forums

12. Reporting

Verification is not based on the maturity in these issues but based on an agreed set of objectives.

The online Standard was launched at the House of Lords on Monday the 17th of April and is available for download.

In an interview with Colleen Theron, Dr. Shamir Ghumra commented on why construction firms of all sizes should respond to the modern slavery commitments and legislation. “Other than essential legal requirements of the Modern Slavery Act for companies over a certain threshold, if an organisation wants to better equip itself for conducting business under today’s market conditions and social governance expectations, then considering modern slavery beyond legal requirements is absolutely essential to safeguarding their own business today and in the years to come,” notes Dr. Ghumra. He says, “While, good practices are hard to demonstrate in a way that means something for everyone, I do think there are cross-sector lessons to be learned, such as how companies engage effectively with suppliers in challenging parts of the world.”

Lessons from companies that are implementing the standards

VGC Group is one of the companies that have adopted the ELS. It is the first company in the rail sector to achieve the new ELA standard, one of only three companies to date. They have put in place objectives to address potential risks of labour exploitation. In a press release the audit report states that “VGC operates at a level well above the minimum requirements of the ELS.”

The other two companies that have formally verified to the ELS are Marshalls and Sir Robert McAlpine. Elaine Mitchel-Hill, Business and Human Rights lead at Marshalls spoke about Marshalls’ commitment to ethical labour sourcing in a personal interview.

Q: Why construction firms of all sizes should respond to the modern slavery commitments and legislation?
A: From a business perspective human rights regulation is on an upward trajectory and the issue of slavery will, quite rightly, remain firmly in the spotlight. Those organisations still not fully engaging with the issues of modern slavery and only doing the minimum in terms of risk mitigation are not only putting human lives at risk but are also missing out on the opportunity to use ethical business and a sustainable approach to drive competitive advantage.

Q: What do you think good practice should look like?
A: It would be easy for many corporations to lose sight of the victims of modern slavery in the drive to ‘mitigate risk’ and to be seen to respond to the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act. Although the task is complex, especially in overseas supply chains, where often the infrastructure to support businesses in driving out modern slavery is weak or does not exist, Marshalls is clear that the victims of modern slavery are firmly at the centre of our strategy. Good practice starts with a victim-centred approach.

Q: How can business measure progress and demonstrate success?
A: Have a clear set of KPI’s; we list our KPI’s in our End Modern Slavery Report.

Q: If you could only do one thing, what should that be?
A: Empower all of the people throughout your organisation to know what the signs of modern slavery are, how to spot them and how to report safely.

Q: What is the value of ELS?
A: ELS independent, third-party verification distinguishes our products and services from
those of our ‘competitors’, some of whom still continue to make spurious and unsubstantiated claims about the ethics of their global supply chains. Our valued customers, suppliers, shareholders, employees and partners can continue to be rightly confident about our ongoing commitment to ethical labour sourcing standards and our day-to-day actions on the ground dealing with the complexities.

Marshall’s modern slavery statement, published in compliance with the UK Modern Slavery Act sets out their approach to combatting modern slavery.

Insights from Institute of Human Rights and Business

The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) has played a key role in highlighting the risk of labour exploitation in global supply chains and actively helps to shape policy and advance practice to strengthen business accountability to prevent negative human rights impacts.

Neill Wilkins, Programme Manager for Migrant Workers at the IHRB attended the launch of the standard. Afterwards, Wilkins shared his insights on modern slavery and the value of the standard.

He notes, “I think the modern slavery agenda impacts clearly on businesses in all sectors. Up until now, perhaps, more attention has fallen on brands that were particularly customer facing. But with the UK Modern Slavery Act, we’ve seen industries across sectors start to become far more engaged and evaluate what is occurring in their supply chains. Businesses recognize that they face the risk of modern slavery practices being found within their own operations.”

Asked about the value of the ELS Standard, Wilkins says, “ELS useful because it provides a common framework for everyone to work to—the same set of criteria, determined through a multi-stakeholder process. ELS provides clear benchmarks for companies to gauge where they are and hopefully also, not just be prepared to sit where they find themselves within the standard, but also use it as a change platform to improve practices.”
“Good practices,” continues Wilkins, “involve undertaking effective due diligence on what’s going on in your operations—both with those who offer you goods and services. For construction firms, in particular, it’s looking at chains of sub-contracting and making sure that you’re aware of all those people who make up your work force.”

Striving for best practice

Whilst many standards require that companies are able to demonstrate a certain level of maturity in addressing the requirements of the standards (such as ISO14001), the notion that under the ELS companies will be measured on their progress will hopefully encourage a ‘beyond tick boxing‘ approach.

What's next?

1. Explore other posts human rights and CSR on our blog.

2. Download our Hidden in Plain Site eBook for an in-depth look at the risk of forced labour in the Construction sector.

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