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Modern slavery is no longer Somebody Else's Problem

It has been my pleasure in recent weeks to re-read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Among the bizarre ideas coming from that fertile mind was the idea of a Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP) Field.

The idea is to create a sort of psychological forcefield around an object so everybody believes it is Somebody Else’s Problem and they don’t see it. This enabled Slartibartfast to park a spaceship in the middle of Lord’s cricket ground during an Ashes test match and nobody saw it.

Denial of one person’s human rights in the interests of profitability of an organisation has always occurred. Today we call it modern slavery. It has always existed but we don’t see it because it is Somebody Else’s Problem.


If we remove the SEP field from modern slavery in construction we need to think about a wide variety of aspects.

Migrant workers form an essential resource to the construction sector these days and most are legally allowed to work here, employed in decent conditions, well paid and managed appropriately. However, some may not be.

We need to be sure we don’t mix up thinking about immigration and slavery. A person may be legally allowed to work here but that does not mean they have not been trafficked and held in slavery conditions.

“Do we actually know where our materials come from and what conditions people are employed under to make them? Probably not”

Workforces on site are not our only problem. We also need to look at supply chains.

Construction supply chains usually have a small number of large players at the top and a large number of very small players at the bottom. Do we actually know where our materials come from and what conditions people are employed under to make them? Probably not.

Previously this was a matter for our corporate conscience or something we only consider if the client asks us about it.

Acting now

The Modern Slavery Act could be seen as the result of the failure of industry to self-regulate, so now we must comply – and new prime minister Theresa May has announced funding to assist enforcement.

The purpose of the act is defined as “… to make provision about slavery, servitude, and forced and compulsory labour and about human trafficking, including the provision for the protection of victims; to make provision for an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner”.

The Supply Chain School has prepared guidance for purchasers and we plan to build on this with e-learning and toolbox talk materials.

All UK-registered companies are required to comply and to address all tiers of their supply chains anywhere in the world. The only distinction is the need to publish a statement if you have a global turnover of over £36m.

It is illegal to be involved in people trafficking, forced labour and bonded labour regardless of who you are and how big or small your organisation is.

In addition to fines and prosecutions, courts will also support claims for compensation for victims.

It is no longer Somebody Else’s Problem.

Shaun McCarthy OBE is chair of the Supply Chain School

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