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Modern slavery underpins the global construction industry, according to a shocking new report

Forced labor has become common in building materials such as timber, bricks, glass, copper, and steel. A new group wants that to change.

Modern slavery underpins the global construction industry, according to a shocking new report
[Photo: filistimlyanin/iStock, Roland Magnusson/iStock]
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Unbeknownst to the people who live in, use, finance, design, and construct them, many buildings are made with materials that are produced with slave labor.

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Modern slavery, according to a new report, is a shockingly common part of the global supply chain that underpins the construction industry. Spreading from forests to factories, impoverished countries to highly developed ones, materials as common as steel, two-by-fours, and copper are produced in places where forced labor and slavery are entrenched practices. For the U.S. market, the world’s second-biggest importer of wood products, illegally harvested timber winds its way from countries such as Russia through others such as China before ending up in buildings and home improvement stores from coast to coast.

It’s a problem that’s been happening right under the construction industry’s nose, according to Sharon Prince, CEO and founder of Grace Farms Foundation, a humanitarian organization in New Canaan, Connecticut, that instigated the report. Prince became interested in the building materials supply chain around 2015 during the process of constructing the foundation’s headquarters, a building designed by architecture firm SANAA that flows across its undulating site.

Given the opacity of the global supply chain and the disparate nature of the construction industry, hard numbers are difficult to track. The report notes that an estimated 25 million people are victims of forced labor or modern slavery, and more than 150 million children are subjected to some form of child labor. The reasons behind forced labor range from debt bondage to state-ordered work to violent coercion. According to a 2017 report on modern slavery, 18% of forced labor occurs in the construction industry—directly constructing buildings or involved in the mining, harvesting, and production of the materials that make up the built world.

Alarmed by the scale of this issue, Prince set out to try to stop these illegal practices by bringing them into the open for the architects, builders, and developers who’ve been their unwitting enablers. More than 60 industry partners joined her to write the new report on forced labor. “This is why there’s such a quick uptake from industry leaders, because no one was able to answer that question of whether or not our buildings are made slave-free once I asked it,” Prince says.

Together with these partners, Grace Farms Foundation has formed Design for Freedom, a movement that’s hoping to bring more transparency to the building supply chain by making the sometimes illegal labor practices behind these materials better known. “It’s not just someone working longer hours—it’s enslavement,” says Prince. “We’re putting out a very concerted effort to make it known, so there’s culpability. Once you know, you can’t un-know it. It’s a different level of responsibility.”

The goal is to use this knowledge at every level of the construction industry to push for more information about material sources and the labor practices behind them, as well as contractual standards that ensure the use of only legally produced material. In the same way that products are marketed as sustainably produced or buildings are certified as energy efficient, Prince says vetted building materials—and the buildings themselves—can be stamped slavery-free.

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“We can put ethical supply chains on the industry’s agenda next to environmental sustainability and change will happen,” Prince says.

Forced labor has become common in the making of building materials such as timber, bricks, glass, copper, and steel, among other raw and composite materials. Timber, one of the most commonly used construction materials, is often logged illegally, and it’s estimated that up to 50% of that illegal timber is produced through forced labor. In countries such as Peru and Russia, 80% of timber is illegally harvested, according to the report. Knowing where such practices are likely can empower industry actors to avoid certain suppliers.

“Not every single company within a certain region is going to be necessarily unethical or have forced labor as part of their workforce, but certainly there are hot spots that raise a flag that need to be investigated,” Prince says. “Once you create transparency, people can make choices.”

Technology can be part of the solution, Prince says. “It’s projected that within the next five years the construction industry will be disrupted with new technologies and production methods, and we’re asking for ethical criteria to be added to these technologies,” Prince says.

Data-fueled software known as building information modeling, or BIM, is commonly used in the industry to create detailed digital representations of construction projects, quantifying everything from budgets to timelines to materials being used. Design for Freedom’s report suggests this software can also be used to note where each material is coming from, ensuring accountability and providing proof that the millions of pieces of a building are coming from slavery-free sources.

Prince says Grace Farms Foundation will continue to fund research on the supply chain of building materials and will be working with other partners to expand existing building certification systems to include requirements for slavery-free materials.

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“It’s not just that there’s a legal and moral imperative to create slave-free buildings, but there’s also, I believe, a very plausible way for the entire sector to become more modernized and efficient and ethical,” Prince says.