The construction industry has direct and often detrimental impacts on human rights, particularly in the areas of workers’ rights, community and land-rights, environmental protection (e.g. dams, large hydro-electric investments) as well as rights to life and health.
The global construction industry spending is predicted to reach $10.5 trillion by 2023, with the largest segment being residential construction. Construction that is sustainable, ethically conducted and based on innovative products and solutions is crucial to achieving Sustainable Development Goals 9 to “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation” and Goal 11 to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. These goals are particularly important given that by 2050, there will be two billion additional city dwellers. Since it relies on large numbers of low-skilled workers, it is a major provider of formal employment opportunities around the world and could play an important role in ensuring that workers’ rights are respected. This is crucial, as emerging markets account for approximately 52% of all construction activity today. [PwC report: Global construction 2025]
However, workers’ abuse, environmental damage, displacement of local communities caused by large-scale construction projects, such as those involving infrastructure development, and in some cases the threat to human life as a result of poorly constructed buildings are regularly reported. The risks and complexities inherent in the construction sector, such as, high competition, tight fixed deadlines, low profit margins (about 2%), and heavy reliance on multiple-layered sub-contracting make it a high-risk sector in terms of human rights (IHRB, June 2016). It is also often under-regulated by local governments and It is also recognised as a high-risk sector for corruption. Moreover, as a labour-intensive sector where temporary and irregular work is common, as well as low-skilled and low-waged jobs, it is a high-risk sector for forced labour. According to the ILO, Walk Free Foundation and International Organization for Migration (IOM), 18 percent of all adults in forced-labour situations are in the construction industry (Global Estimates of Global Slavery, September 2017).+ Read more
In recent years, the construction boom has attracted millions of migrant workers, primarily to the Gulf States but also to other places where large-scale events including mega-sporting events take place (e.g. Russia), to work on large-scale infrastructure projects. Many countries are undertaking or plan to undertake large infrastructure projects such as dams, ports, roads, rails, pipelines in a bid to modernise or boost economic activity. A significant number of these projects are being undertaken through the private-public-partnership (PPPs) model hence an increased role of the private sector and an added risk and opportunity for human rights given if undertaken in line with human rights based approach. In a 2016 survey of 100 construction companies in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC)only 39% of companies surveyed had publically available human rights commitments. The BHRRC’s outreach revealed a lack of transparency and that only a handful of companies took adequate steps in areas such as recruitment, worker voice and subcontracting.
The Grenfell Tower fire tragedy of 14th June 2017, in London, that resulted in loss of life, brought to awareness the importance of respecting health and safety regulations, not only with respect to workers on the building site, but also with respect to the materials used in the construction [Grenfell Tower: Results of fire safety tests of cladding and insulation].
Specific instances have been brought before to urge corporations in the construction sector to abide by the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. In May 2015, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) brought a case against the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) before the Swiss NCP, on the grounds that FIFA was involved in abuses of the rights of migrant workers in Qatar. According to BWI, such abuses were widely documented before 2010, when FIFA appointed Qatar as the host state for the 2022 World Cup, and FIFA has failed to conduct adequate and ongoing human rights due diligence following Qatar’s appointment. The NCP issued a final statement of the mediation outcome in May 2017 which was welcomed by both parties and covered many of the issues raised by BWI including, a robust system for monitoring labour conditions on the ground, grievance mechanism for workers and the establishment of an oversight body (BWI). In France, a criminal complaint was brought against Vinci Construction Grands Projects and its Qatari subsidiary over allegations of “forced labour, servitude and concealment” in its construction sites for the football World Cup in Qatar in March 2015.
Stakeholders have developed various Guidelines (e.g. Human Rights Watch, Guidelines for a Better Construction Industry in the GCC: A Code of Conduct for Construction Companies) and recommendations (e.g. both the BHRRC outreach report and BSR Working Paper on “Addressing Workers’ Rights in the Engineering and Construction Sector – Opportunities for Collaboration”) to help companies improve their human rights performance. They have also suggested a number of recommendations to improve workers’ rights in this sector. ‘Building Responsibly’, is a global engineering and construction industry initiative established to promote the rights and welfare of workers. This initiative works by developing common approaches and standards, sharing learning and tools, and engaging workers and other stakeholders on the specific challenges companies face. The Mega Sporting Events initiative by the Institute for Human Rights and Business brings together multi-stakeholders working together to address human rights issues throughout he lifecycle of large sporting events of which construction of supporting infrastructure in the host countries is major stage and often fraught with human rights concerns.
Legislative reforms, such as state-led labour law reforms can be complemented by rather than replaced by civil society efforts, or industry or company led codes of conducts. Some of these initiatives were, in fact, developed as a response to increased transparency regulations. For instance, since the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 began requiring public companies to disclose whether they have adopted a code of ethics, some companies and their associates have chosen to adopt and disclose their own code of ethics, even though compliance is only voluntary for privately held companies. See e.g. the American Subcontractors Association “Model Code of Ethics for a Construction Subcontractor”).
The construction sector is of significant importance for the achievement of sustainable development goals (SDGs) as it impacts on all three dimensions of the SDGs; economic, social and environmental. This sector can contribute to the achievement of many goals including building resilient infrastructure (SDG 9) and “making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe and sustainable” (SDG 11), and to climate change adaptation and mitigation (SDG 13). All of these SDGs have human rights dimensions. Construction can also be a hazardous sector and one that relies on many low-skilled, often migrant, workers. Thus, it also plays a crucial role in protecting workers’ rights and ensuring a safe and secure working environment compliant with international labour standards (SDG 8.8). Activities of the construction sector under all these Goals also have implications for land rights (SDGs 1.4, 2.3, 5a), where adequate due diligence is crucial to ensure adequate respect for communities’ and individual land rights.