migrant construction workers

There’s an estimated 15,000 victims of modern slavery right now in Australia. A new initiative by Catholic entities hopes to put an end to this “hidden in plain sight” problem.

Australia’s modern slavery legislation is now translating into meaningful on-the-ground interventions in the high-risk construction sector, including an anonymous advice chat service for workers observing troubling behaviour. 

The app is part of a broader Building Links project initiated by the Australian Catholic Anti-slavery Network (ACAN).

The project aims to increase the capacity of construction industry participants to recognise and respond to modern slavery. It’s since secured a grant from the federal government and includes online training and toolkits targeted at the Australian domestic construction industry, mainly migrant workers.

The project sprung from the ACAN’s work to address modern slavery concerns in the supply chains of Catholic entities in Australia, which is the largest employer in Australia outside the public sector and includes schools, hospitals and aged care facilities.

Alison Rahill, the executive officer of the Anti-Slavery Taskforce at the ACAN, says construction is one of the highest spend areas for Catholic entities. And, upon developing the resources to assist its own entities, realised these tools could be made available to the broader construction industry.

She says modern slavery is not happening on all building sites but it does occur, such as Royal Hobart Hospital redevelopment where 100 predominantly Chinese workers stopped working because they weren’t being paid or receiving very delayed payments.

“…the reality is these workers are on Australian construction sites and it’s what we call hidden in plain sight.”

There’s estimated to be around 15,000 victims of modern slavery in Australia, trapped in forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage or human trafficking. The actual figures are potentially much higher, Rahill says, as victims don’t always seek help, especially from authorities such law enforcement.

She says each industry faces its own challenges when safely engaging people with modern slavery. In the construction sector, one complicating factor is the intricate network of contractors and subcontractors onsite, with some only on site for a few days. Rahill says it’s the finishing trades that tend to be the highest risk groups as they are only onsite briefly so can “fly beneath the radar”.

These finishing trades also often employ migrant workers, she says, who can be particularly vulnerable because people with different cultural norms often rationalise concerning behaviour as a part of that culture. “People might think, ‘that’s just their culture, that’s just how they work’.”

As such, the training is focused on people like site supervisors and project managers that see the build though from the demolition right through to the finishing trades.

It’s about educating people about the warning signs of modern slavery and equipping them with the skills to respond to potential cases safely and effectively, she says.

She says there’s over 100 signs to look out for that might indicate enforced labour.

“It might be people experiencing overcrowded accommodation, or little to no pay, no access to cooking facilities, or no money to buy lunch.”

“It can also be subtle things: not making eye contact, or not asking questions, or a sense of being controlled.

“Often there’s an alpha controller of a small group of workers, do these workers have freedom of possession and are in control of their own wallets and phones and things like that.”

Recognising troubling signs is the first step. Next, people need to be able to be able to escalate the situation in a manner that won’t make matters worse for the victim.

That’s where the idea for the Domus 8.7 platform came from: an anonymous advice chat service where concerned workers can run a suspicious scenario by trained professionals to devise a safe action plan. She says it’s just like an encrypted chat function, but the inquirer is deidentified. Once someone initiates a chat, the Anti-Slavery Taskforce is alerted and then engages in a discussion to help.

“You can’t just raise awareness and then say ‘off you go’.” She say people often want confirmation that what they’ve seen is a warning sign, or want to know how to start a conversation to get more information.

It supports the “bridge person”

Rahill says the anonymised service is also designed to overcome issues around trust.

“It’s very rare for a victim of modern slavery to contact someone outside their group to help… there’s usually a bridge person who says ‘I think this person needs help and they’ve asked me to help them’.”

Similarly, people are likely to seek help with someone from the same cultural community. That’s why the Building Links program offers resource and training in a few different languages.

The taskforce is also able to provide social services to the site, with social services on hand. It’s able to connect people with crisis accommodation or emergency transport, as well as legal support such as migration advice.

The modern slavery legislation is starting to do its job

Rahill says the modern slavery legislation, which is now going through its second round of reporting, is driving and generating “so much change and transformation in so many high risk sectors”, including construction, security, cleaning and manufacturing.

She says the legislation is “really clear” and requires demonstration of continuous improvement. She says high level statements of intent are now turning into action on the ground.

The ASX listed companies have responded quickly, she says, because they have the resources to do so. The bigger challenge will be the many other companies, with all businesses with a minimum annual consolidated revenue of $100 million required to report.

She says these businesses often aren’t used to transparency.

“They don’t have annual reports and AGMs… this will be a tougher conversation.”

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  1. Who are the slaves? Largely migrants who are unaware of their rights and/or desperate for work. Its great for developers and naturally the federal government will assist them by reverting back to the pre-pandemic levels of high immigration.