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Cameron Sinclair Headshot

Dying To Work: Human Trafficking and the Construction Industry

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We don't talk about it, we don't even acknowledge it, but the human trafficking of men is alive and well. It's a global issue that affects the service industry, agriculture and the construction industry. In this economic downturn it is getting worse. In the US, the percentage of reported victims that are male has risen from 6% to 45% from 2006 to 2008. It's not an 'over there' problem, it's an everywhere problem.

In July I spoke at the TED conference in Oxford on this issue in the construction industry. Below is a excerpt from that talk and accompanying slides. Since I gave the talk, UAE officials are pushing through tougher building codes and hopefully stronger laws protecting construction workers.

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It was a few years ago my eyes where opened to the dark side of my world, the construction industry. In 2006 in Qatar local students took me to see migrant worker housing. They asked me if this was what we meant by progress. Since then I've followed the unfolding issue of worker rights in the construction industry.

Let's take one country, one that has been in the spotlight. This year more than $300bn of building projects have been canceled or put on hold in the UAE. Behind the headlines lays the fate of the often indentured construction workers. All 1.1 million of them.

Mainly Indian, Pakistani and Nepalese, these laborers risk everything to make money for their families back home. They pay a middle man thousands of dollars and arrive to find themselves in camps with no water, no air conditioning and quite often, their passports removed.

It is easy to point the finger at local officials and higher authorities, but let us not forget that it is the private sector that is equally, if not more, accountable. Groups like Build Safe UAE have emerged but the numbers are overwhelming. In August 2008, public health authorities noted that 40% of the countries 1,093 labor camps violated minimum health and fire safety standards. Last summer, more than 10,000 workers protested for nonpayment of wages, poor quality of food and inadequate housing. Then the financial collapse happened.

When the contractors go bust everything goes missing -- documentation, passports and tickets home for the workers. Currently thousands of workers are abandoned in Dubai -- no way to get back, no proof of arrival. They are boom and bust refugees.

The question is, as a building professional, if you know this is going on and you choose to accept this practice as the norm are you complicit in the human rights violations? Forget our environmental footprint, what is our ethical footprint? What good is building a zero energy, carbon neutral complex if unethical labor practices are jeopardizing the lives of those who build this architectural wonder?

I was informed at a debate on ethics in architecture earlier this year that it was easy to take the high road on this issue. The fact is, there is no other road.

We, as building professionals, should use our unique positions to support groups like Build Safe UAE, help influence stronger legislation and to utilize the contract process to make sure the health and living standards of construction workers are respected.

As we worry about the next job in the office, let us remember these men are truly dying to work.

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Special thanks to Brent Stirton for use of his images and his piece Migrant Labor Issues that re-focused my attention on this issue.