A January 18, 2021 report by the UK Independent Anti Slavery Commissioner is both a wake-up call and a useful guide on preventing modern slavery and human trafficking.
In the Western world there are low levels of awareness of the prevalence of modern slavery. Yet today there are more than 40 million people in modern slavery worldwide. Modern slavery exists in every industry, in every country in the world.
It is no longer acceptable to look the other way. Ignorance is not a defense. If businesses, including in the real estate industry look hard enough, they will find it in their supply chains. A business saying though an ESG statement on their website that they are concerned about modern slavery may sound nice, but in 2021 when so many are talking about ESG, that claim will not resonate and quite frankly falls short of what a private enterprise should be doing to prevent these crimes.
Slavery in the construction industry is not new, but this is not about the slaves who built the Egyptian pyramids in the Middle Kingdom period of 2600 BC.
The British government reports there are more enslaved people today than there have been at any time in history! (And that does not include forced prison labor, including for example the widely reported Chinese prison labor-derived nails that entered the United States.)
In a conversation I had with Barry Giles, a true green building pioneer, in 2018, he said, “to truly regard sustainable buildings in a holistic manner, it’s our obligation to start with the supply chain serving the construction industry.”
This law firm has worked with businesses, non real estate and real estate alike, in their disclosures required by the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 describing their “efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from [their] direct supply chain for tangible goods offered for sale.” And we have advised companies seeking to produce their annual statements required by the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015. To assist in context, that Article 1 of that Act defines slavery:
“A person commits an offence if: a) the person holds another person in slavery or servitude and the circumstances are such that the person knows or ought to know that the other person is held in slavery or servitude, or b) the person requires another person to perform forced or compulsory labour and the circumstances are such that the person knows or ought to know that the other person is being required to perform forced or compulsory labour.”
The British and the EU lead the world in these concerns and the EU Parliament has committed that by June 2021 is will require human rights due diligence including for many U.S. companies selling in the EU. They are also far ahead of the U.S. in matters of ESG disclosures and while there is no single or widely accepted definition of “Environmental, Social and Governance,” matters of slavery should be disclosed. Ethical labor is becoming widely considered and articulated in ESG disclosures in 2021 by clients of this firm.
But today’s ESG statements are only a very small step. The ideal of social equity can be traced back to the works of Aristotle and while definitions vary and have evolved over thousands of years, most would agree humanity has not done enough, including that despite purporting to address social equity as one third of the sustainability triple bottom line, for example, today’s green building standards have failed miserably in responding to issues of modern slavery on construction sites and building material supply chains.
The largest study of the typology of modern slavery in the U.S. found construction as one of the top 25 industries where slavery takes place today.
Green building has only very recently begun to emphasize the social equity component of the triple bottom line. In response to criticism of that deafening silence in the ratings systems, there is a LEED v4 pilot credit available for Social Equity within the Supply Chain, the original draft of which was informed by the BIFMA e3 furniture sustainability standard, although it is rarely pursued, that addresses workers who are involved in the production of materials and products used in the project. Some suggest the pilot credit was an afterthought that attempts to do too much and accomplishes little when it not only requires “no child/ forced/ bonded labor” but also “harassment and grievance procedures” and “anti-corruption and bribery” that are uniquely American values not practical most places in the world.
The BRE Ethical Labour Sourcing Standard enables a company to examine and assess its own business practices and then if it desires to demonstrate to customers and other stakeholders the company’s commitment to eliminating ant possibility of modern slavery or human trafficking. The Standard provides a good framework that is available free of charge. If a company determines, it can then showcase their ethical sourcing credentials after gaining third party Ethical Labour Sourcing verification from BRE Global. I am a fan of this BRE standard and we have utilized it with clients.
And the January 18th Themis International Services, Preventing Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking: An Agenda for Action across the Financial Services Sector, 2021, pulls together research, resources and advice aimed at the financial services sector, but having far greater impact.
Slavery has existed since ancient times and despite having been outlawed in all countries, contemporary slavery exists. At a time when ESG has become synonymous with sustainability and companies are coming to recognize that investors want to buy into businesses that protect the environment, those companies must aggressively consider not only the legal risk, reputational risk, but also the financial risk that investors also want to buy into companies that protect people. Additionally, it is suggested in the U.S. it is better to do the right thing, now, rather than be forced to do so by new laws.
There is no morally defensible reason for not doing everything in our power to end modern slavery and human trafficing. All companies must examine and assess their business practices now.