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CN Briefing: Qatari abuse claims; modern slavery; Balfour Beatty; Interserve

The allegations of abusive treatment of workers on projects being built by Qatari companies co-owned by two of the largest contractors in the UK are serious and worrying.

It must be stressed that the allegations themselves, published today in the Guardian, are just that at this stage.

But if our industry wants to be seen to be one that values transparency and ethics, then it is incumbent on the firms named - Balfour Beatty and Interserve - to treat them with the utmost gravity.

So far, their responses prompt more questions than they provide answers.

Balfour Beatty says that BK Gulf, which it co-owns with a local firm, goes “over and above local regulations and laws” when it comes to the conditions of its workers.

Interserve, which co-owns Gulf Contracting Company, says it recruits through agencies “that meet our own high standards… and comply fully with the Qatar labour laws”.

But what does going over and above local regulations actually mean? And what do Interserve’s high standards involve?

Furthermore, how can the pair - which are, don’t forget, leaders in so many ways when it comes to HR issues back home - prove they are doing everything in their powers to make sure the alleged mistreatment isn’t taking place?

If the living conditions described by the Guardian - which says it found up to 13 men sleeping in one room and evidence of the withholding of workers’ passports - prove to be accurate, then any UK co-owned company involved must unequivocally cut ties with any local outfits involved.

For an industry that has habitually struggled with an image problem, it’s as much about being seen to do the right thing as it is about compliance with the law.

The newly minted Modern Slavery Act has surprising little legal bite, as Clyde & Co’s Brett Hartley highlights in a column for Construction News last week.

But its elevation to the statute book signals a shift in attitude that must be reflected by our top firms.

Mr Hartley points out that, instead of the lawmakers, it is civil society - customers, the press, shareholders, NGOs and others - that will drive greater transparency. Perhaps this is the first major test of how effective a policeman this broad coalition can be.

Interserve says it is investigating the complaints, while Balfour Beatty is reviewing its local supply chain. It’s a good start, but these are still just words.

Given the seriousness of the allegations involved, it would not be unreasonable to demand to see some action as well.

In the news

Battersea Power Station Development Company has increased the scope of works on phase two, taking Skanska’s total contract value to £1.15bn.

Another EfW plant could be in trouble after the DCLG delayed a planning decision in the wake of scrapping a ’similar’ Tees Valley projects.

The long read

How Bam is using BIM to deliver Coventry University’s new sports building.




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