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Engineering and construction firms join forces to protect workers in their supply chains.

This week, six major engineering and construction companies—CH2M Hill, Vinci SA, Amec Foster Wheeler, Bechtel Corporation, Fluor Corporation and Multiplex—are hosting the inaugural meeting of a new industry-led coalition called Building Responsibly. The group will focus on the rights of workers in global construction supply chains, including those rights related to the recruitment of these workers, to their living and working conditions, and to subcontractor management.

The formation of Building Responsibly represents an important first step forward for an industry that has been slow to address labor rights issues, especially in the Arabian Gulf region.

Other engineering and construction firms around the world should join this new initiative. Collaborations like this can promote the sharing of best practices and the development of common industry standards and metrics.

Over the past 20 years, as global supply chains have grown increasingly complex, a number of industry groups focusing on labor rights and environmental justice in their own supply chains have been formed. In these sectors, multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSI) have been created to convene industry competitors, along with governments, civil society organizations and other key stakeholders. The strongest of these have adopted common industry standards and metrics—which member companies are expected to implement—as well as mechanisms for enforcing compliance.

The Fair Labor Association (FLA), for example, evolved out of a 1996 task force commissioned by then-US President Bill Clinton. It was partly created in response to public debate on college campuses and elsewhere about sweatshop practices in the labor supply chains of the apparel and athletic footwear industries. The FLA developed labor standards for its members’ supply chains, developed a monitoring and reporting process, and built a staff to provide guidance and training to both member companies and their suppliers. Today, FLA standards apply to factories around the world employing more than 4.5 million workers, and the organization has an annual budget of around $5 million.

Other MSIs and industry groups have been created to address human rights issues that apply to the private securitymining and electronics industries, among others.

Until now, the engineering and construction industry has yet to develop a similar collective framework. But in recent years, particularly in the lead-up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, large companies in the sector have faced negative publicity relating to labor practices in construction in Qatar and the broader Gulf region, making an organization like Building Responsibly crucial for the industry’s major players.

These companies’ and their suppliers’ workforces consist largely of low-paid South Asian migrants who face a variety of human rights concerns, including the payment of onerous “recruitment fees” to various agents in their home countries, being presented in the Gulf with different contracts than the ones they reviewed prior to departure, wage garnishment by employers or recruitment agents, passport confiscation by employers, and substandard living and safety conditions.

As in other industries, engineering and construction firms work with complex supply chains that are difficult to track. Small subcontractors are responsible for some of the worst abuses, and problems are exacerbated by inadequate local labor laws and enforcement measures both in the Gulf and in South Asia, the region from where most Gulf migrant workers are recruited.

GOING FORWARD

But we have seen global companies in other industries step up despite similar challenges when problems were identified in their supply chains. In 2012, when news reports highlighted labor abuses at Foxconn Technology Group factories in China, which make electronic products for Apple and other companies, Apple undertook a number of concrete steps both to investigate the problems and to take practical corrective actions. The large engineering and construction firms working in the Gulf, which directly benefit from low-cost migrant labor, are well-positioned to do the same.

To be truly effective, the architects of Building Responsibly will need to actively involve nongovernmental organizations (NGO), academics, governments, subcontractors and large clients. Its agenda should be to develop, implement and evaluate industry standards and metrics for working and living conditions in places such as the Gulf, and for recruiting practices from regions such as South Asia.

With five years to go before kickoff in Qatar, and with many other mega-construction projects underway in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, the creation of the Building Responsibly initiative is very timely.

The agenda is clear, and now is the time to act. This week’s meeting is a good step, but it is only the first of many.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Mlenny