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Annalisa Enrile,
Clinical Professor, University of Southern California, Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work


Oliver Ritchie,
Vice President, Technology and Innovation, CMiC

The Global Subcontractor Registry: A technology solution to end trafficking In the construction industry

This article will examine the phenomenon of labor trafficking in the construction industry and presents a technological solution that is currently being developed to identify vulnerabilities in the construction supply chain. This solution- a Global Subcontractor Registry has the potential to increase transparency, thereby decreasing trafficking dramatically. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates 24.9 million people are exploited through forced labor (ILO, 2017b). Roughly, 7.5 million people are trafficked in the industries of construction, manufacturing and mining (ILO, 2017b). The entire ecosystem of construction includes a complex supply chain that runs from formal to informal sectors, with informal sectors being the most dangerous for forced labor practices. The primary challenge with supply chain transparency is the inability to get past the first tier due to many factors including the size of most things construction subcontractors (less the 20 employees), lags in technology, and management of sub-tiers through payment waivers and not behavior. The Global Subcontractor Registry is a proposed web-based technology that addresses these challenges and provides a mechanism to identify vulnerability points in the supply chain and disrupt the chain of slavery.


In 2013, headlines screamed about the “World Cup Slaves of Qatar.” A Guardian investigation revealed that thousands of laborers from Nepal were being exploited and abused as modern-day slaves building the city for the World Cup in 2022 (Pattisson, 2013). These workers were unable to leave, forced to work in the hot sun without access to water and many hadn’t been paid in months. Over 1,200 workers had died by 2015, and the total death toll is estimated to reach 4,000 by 2022 (International Trade Union Confederation Special Report, 2014). This horrendous story is only one of many. Though slavery is illegal in nearly every country in the world, it still affects over 40 million people. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates 7.5 million people are trafficked in the industries of construction, manufacturing and mining (ILO, 2017b). 1 in 4 of those trafficked are children (ILO, 2017a). Because some countries do not have child labor laws, about 152 million children globally participate in child labor (ILO, 2017a). With the growth of the global economy resulting in a development boom, transnational labor becomes a necessity and the commodification of human beings has exploded.

Traffickers make an incredible profit of 150 billion dollars a year so any move to fight trafficking is met by intense resistance (ILO, 2017b). Threats, coercion and murder are not out of the ordinary. In order to combat human trafficking and forced labor in the construction industry, systems of change are dependent on multi- disciplinary collaboration from various stakeholder sectors that are impacted by the problem. This solution- a Global Subcontractor Registry has the potential to increase transparency, thereby decreasing trafficking dramatically.

Overview of Labor Trafficking

Sex trafficking, which affects an estimated 4.8 million people around the world- 99% of whom are women, has garnered most of the public and private attention of the human trafficking space (ILO, 2017b)This is true even though all international reports have indicated that Labor is the primary form or trafficking (DOS, 2018). Six indicators of forced labor and enslavement include (ILO, 2017b):

  1. Threats or actual physical harm to the worker
  2. Restriction of movement and confinement (to the workplace or other limited area)
  3. Debt bondage: workers have to pay off debt or loan, is not paid for his/her services. These debts, including shelter or accommodations are at such inflated prices that the worker cannot escape the debt
  4. Withholding of wages or excessive wage reductions (violation of previously made agreements)
  5. Retention of passports or other identity documents so that workers cannot leave, prove their identity, or their status (or the lack of status)
  6. Threat of denunciation to the authorities, usually where the worker has an irregular immigration status

All of these indicators are present in some way, shape or form whether the trafficking is domestic or occurs across borders. Verité, a non-profit organization monitoring supply chains discovered that risk factors of trafficking included: low skilled labor in the “three d’s” (dirty, dangerous, and/or difficult work), seasonal or short lifecycles, competitive industries with low barriers to entry, offshore manufacturing, reliance on labor recruiting and non-transparent supply chains (Verité, 2015).

Coercion is often the mitigating factor in deciding whether a situation should be considered “trafficking” or “modern day slavery.” However, it is now accepted that coercion may take any number of forms from psychological pressure to debt bondage to physical threats or harm (Skrivankova, 2010). Since coercion and denial of freedom could be extremely subtle such as veiled threats, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain that trafficking is occurring. For example, some migrants may believe or actually possessed legal means of entering and working in a country, but they will get their papers and passports taken away or be forced to “overstay their visas.” In these cases, the ability to report their exploitation is hindered by the possible feeling either that they will be turned into the authorities and arrested or that their conditions are temporary and therefore, able to be tolerated (Owens et al, 2014). Another aspect to consider is within industries that are mostly male, and migrants are from patriarchal countries, there is an element of shame in telling the truth about the situation or ending up in such a situation to begin with. They may believe that they could or should have somehow avoided being exploited, trafficked or enslaved. In these cases, it may be that silence is caused by not wanting to admit weakness or that they are in need of help (Kimmel, 2004). Free trade agreements in the 1990’s heralded an era of globalization that decentralized and privatized industry, creating what some critics called a “race to the bottom” (McGrath and Mieres, 2017, p.8). While this was perhaps an overstatement, what remained true was that putting the fate of labor in the hands of private companies created a world where higher profits were literally made on the backs of cheap labor. This gave rise to contractualized labor, feminization of labor, reliance on subcontractors and working conditions that adhered to two different sets of rules- those inside and outside of zones (Arnold and Pickles, 2011). These practices, hallmarks of globalization, contributed greatly to the vulnerability of a global work force.

Subcontractualization in particular, helps to exacerbate the problem of exploited labor and the even more serious occurance of trafficked labor. Hess (2004) points out that the need for subcontractors adds to the already growing “fragmentation and dispersion of production” (McGrath and Mieres, 2017, p. 7). Thus, the political, socioeconomic and geographical contexts of supply chains may become confused in its journey. The confusion adds to the complexity and may aid in hiding labor trafficking. Intermediaries such as recruiters, those providing ancillary services like transportation or accommodation and even lower level subcontractors can be sites that are not accounted for.

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The Importance of Supply Chain

Within the last ten years, supply chain dynamics have been considered as a possible site where interventions may be directed. The intersection of trafficking and supply chain makes sense because it’s the nexus of stakeholders in the continuum from owners to consumers; government agencies, and labor. Parella (2014) also believes it solves the problem of the transnational nature of trafficking because supply chains cover the entire workflow. This allows for leverage over bad actors, especially in instances where target actors are several steps (and countries) removed (Parella, 2014). Supply chains provide insight to modern day slavery and vulnerability to trafficking and exploitative labor practices.

There is growing international legislation supporting supply chain transparency. The UK Modern Slavery Act of 2015 (Act, 2015). Section 54, a provision in the law is the Transparency in Supply Chains. Section 54 requires that any commercial organization, in any sector that supplies goods or services and carries out even part of their business in the UK and has annual (gross) receipts of $56 million dollars must produce a statement about their supply chain (Act, 2015). The California Transparency in Supply Chains (CA-TISC) law passed in 2012. This is the only US law that targets supply chain transparency. CA-TISC only requires retail sellers and manufacturers doing business in the state with more than $100 million (gross) annually to disclose what they are doing to eradicate slavery in their direct supply chain as well as to disclose their supply chain (Enrile, 2017). There has been movement to rank or rate companies, but no public listing of this. Companies struggle to comply with the law, with only an average of a 60% success rate (Watch & Winsor, 2015).

Next iterations of legislation should include requirements that address, intervene or prevent labor trafficking. Until then, initiatives and innovations must be developed for transparency. The trajectory of global legislation indicates that it is only a matter of time before transparency becomes mandatory and sought after as a symbol of good business practices as savvy customers will demand such disclosures (Enrile and Ritchie, 2017).

The Construction Industry and Labor Trafficking

Construction developed from just building to provide basic needs of shelter, distance (transportation), and public spaces, to more diverse and complex projects that are more technical and sophisticated (Oyewobi, Oke, Ganiyu, Shittu, Isa, & Nwokobia, 2011). The construction sector is one of the largest drivers of development worldwide, and one of the largest employers. In some regions, such as the Middle East, construction comprises nearly a quarter of cities’ domestic product (Buckley, 2012). The Global South houses roughly 70% of the total estimated 115 million construction workers (Chang, 2008).

Previous research reveals exploitation and forced labor in the construction industry (Wilkinson, Craig, & Gaus, 2010). The main factors leading to human trafficking include: intensification of work (speed and the need for profit); high concentrations of migrant labor; and the heavy reliance on subcontractors and agency (recruitment) labor (Lalani and Metcalf, 2012). The construction industry is known for its short term contracts, subcontractor based supply chains and informal employment practices (Lingard, Cooke, & Blismas, 2009). It should not be surprising then, that the level of vulnerability is extremely high. With the world poised to develop rapidly over the next decade, the construction industry is estimated to become a ten trillion-dollar business (Enrile & Ritchie, 2018b; Lucintel, 2017).

The isolation of this workforce is a key feature in its vulnerability. Workers are segregated and isolated into company barracks or even subdivisions outside of the cities they were building (Ahmed, 2007). This invisibility created distance and space from the more affluent and it also discouraged workers from fully integrating in society (Elsheshtawy, 2008). Project based construction makes this look efficient and is not questioned. There is a fine line between housing and captivity.

Subcontractualization and agency labor is predominately used to cut labor costs, especially in industries where there are fluctuations in demand. In light of these types of fluctuations, seasonal or contract work is called for and composes a majority of construction labor since jobs are often segmented and completed through phases. Because labor costs are one of the largest drains on resources, the economic argument is compelling enough to utilize more than three tiers of subcontractualiztion in the supply chain. Workers, who are usually recruited by agencies are subject to huge forms of debt before they even leave their countries, resulting in debt bondage (Jordan, 2011). The maintenance of risk, vulnerability and actual instances of debt bondage or enslavement is enforced by a number of variables including coercion and forced removal of documentation

Fighting Trafficking in the Construction Industry through Supply Chain Transparency

There is very little known about the concrete conditions of workers throughout the construction supply chain. The number of subcontractors in a construction project can sometimes go over five layers deep (Radovich, personal communication, July 23, 2015). The culture of construction itself plays a part in the lack of knowledge since, in many countries, the United States included, construction remains a very private industry, based on informal systems. One also cannot ignore prior (and perhaps continuing) engagment of criminal elements within this industry such as the mafia and other organized crime (Shelley, 1995). Another thing to consider is that at each point in the supply chain, these factors may change. In a review of supply chain initiatives aimed at addressing trafficking and forced labor, DemandAT and researchers McGrath and Mieres (2017) found that initiatives were found in the following realms: policy and legislation; CSR initiatives; and collective labor bargaining agreements.

Policy and legislation, has focused on reducing victimization of migrant workers. However, the trajectory of legislation focusing on transparency is progressing. Ormond of ASSET, an organization who influenced CA-TISC believes this is the first step in knowing where to intervene, that knowing supply chain is necessary (Ormond, personal communication, August 1, 2018). Allain et. al. (2013) believes this legislation is good because it raises awareness of the issue. The challenge remains of how to reach deeper in to the chain. The next step in legislation is to provide “teeth” by creating enforcible guidelines when companies find trafficking in their supply chains. Unfortunately, without regulatory compliances, businesses are loathe to do anything that will cut into their bottom line. A final note to consider is the transnational nature of trafficking which necessitates laws that operate beyond borders. Currently, there are no laws or regulations save for trade agreements which have disadvantaged workers. International agreements must be created with the goal of reducing trafficking and forced labor.

CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives are another area focused on supply chain. Mostly, CSR initiatives must be considred voluntary measures because companies are exerting their own efforts and their own resources. These initiatives have been noted primarily in the garment industry where unions and the public have influenced (if not forced) companies to take a stance against sweatshop labor (Anner, M., Bair, J. & Blasi, J, 2013). In 2012, Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking (gBCAT) was formed. This coalition was composed of a number of multi-national businesses and their aim was provide training to their employees about trafficking in general and provide financial support to organizations working on the issue (Linnhoff, S., Martin, H., Smith, K., & Smith, M., 2014). While this tends to be the bulk of CSR activities, companies are moving towards more proactive CSR aimed at their supply chain. For example, Ford Motor Company’s CSR includes incorporating independent audits to help improve its supply chain. These audits are made public and employees are encouraged to provide their own insights and recommendations (Crump, 2016).

Where initiatives are focused on supply chain, various methodologies are used that cut across all three areas. These include legal instruments (not just policy, but also laws and regulations); supply chain monitoring (SCM); employer guidance; recruitment; consumer information/awareness; boycotts; institutional procurement; disclosure mandates; financial support from public bodies (with the idea that such funding would be revoked if supply chains proved to be compromised); alternative business models such as fair trade; investor/shareholder actions; trade related agreements (for instance, banning products made from compromised supply chains); and worker organizing (focus is on collective bargaining). Along with innovative approaches and collaborative systems of change, the possibilities of how to affect change lead to unconventional and perhaps formerly unexplored perspectives.

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Construction Technology as a Solution

The technological aspect of construction is more or less confined to either work site building and safety or project management. The former is composed of drones, wearables, mobile devices and artificial intelligence helping workers maintain a safe work environment or assisting them with the actual build of the project. The latter may be composed of something as simple as Excel spreadsheets or with an entire enterprise solution. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software is the most comprehensive option for project management because the data is real-time and complete. This type of platform is prudent for modern construction and development projects because these projects entail a number of collaborators from general contractors, subcontractors, architects and owners (to name a few) within shared activities from job sites, remote locations and offices (Čuš-Babič, N., Rebolj, D., Nekrep-Perc, M., & Podbreznik, P., 2014). High levels of interoperability is required to manage communication within the project lifecycle (Jardim-Goncalves, R., Popplewell, K., & Grilo, A., 2012). The growing adoption and implementation of ERP software makes this a platform to build upon in order to increase transparency within the supply chain. Construction supply chains are intricate- sometimes composed of tens of hundreds of companies, components and services (Cheng, Law, Bjornsson, Jones, & Sriram, 2010). ERP software may offer the potential to shed light on key business relationships and workflows relevant to seeing more than bottlenecks in the process, but also highlighting the gaps in the process that leave workers vulnerable (Cheng et al., 2010). For an additional layer of understanding, the project life cycle in construction runs parallel to supply chains, making it a strong tool to determine where the best opportunity for intervention may be (Cheng et al, 2010).

Leaders in construction-based ERP software asserts that pre-qualification and certification information within global databases will be more effective than traditional audits in encouraging transparency because it will not require more of project stakeholders included owners than what they are already doing. Constant monitoring of all parties involved in the construction process using compliances can be done by the software to identify the troubling metrics that a human would need to investigate. The combination of technology and human oversight would allow construction managers and owners to address any possible criminal activity in real-time. Currently, most public construction projects (cities, states, countries, etc.), pay out their general contractors and subcontractors and if any misconduct is identified, they investigate post-payment (Jacinto, personal communication, 2018). The function of payment deferral allows project managers and inspectors to investigate prior to payment and resolve matters, saving public entities thousands of dollars. This would also modify behaviors to eliminate bad actors in the space and allow for prevention instead of correction.

Global Subcontractor Registry

The need to be able to provide accurate data for human trafficking is reliability collected through methodologically sound means (Robinson, Branchini & Thame, 2017). Registries have been used by law enforcement in sex trafficking cases and have shown to reduce recidivism (Brown, 2011). Registries have not been used in labor trafficking, although there has been a move to improve data collection practices. The City Bar Justice Center reported a dearth of knowledge in labor trafficking and recommended the creation of registries in every state in the US based on current agreed upon definitions and supported by legislation (Tomatore & Matthews-Jolly, 2013). Though a step in the right direction, there are limitations to such a registry because it would be dependent on legislation, must come from and be monitored by law enforcement and carries with it the stigma of prosecution. It is also crucial to have a proactive approach with a database that allows prevention of corrupt activities.

The ecosystem of construction includes a complex supply chain that runs from formal to informal sectors, with informal sectors being the most dangerous for forced labor practices. The primary challenge with supply chain transparency is the inability to get past the first tier and get into both formal and informal sectors as Crane, LeBaron, Allain, & Behbahani (2017) have identified. The difficulty of doing this may be due to many things such as the fact that most construction subcontractors are small companies of less the 20 employees, construction lags in technology to other industries, and prime contractors manage sub-tiers through payment waivers and not behavior, and the nature of payrolls prohibits payments being released – so most employers need to create special reports that redact employee information something that is cost prohibitive.

The Global Subcontractor Registry is a website that stores their tax-id verified collaborators in the project (who will be referred to as Business Partners). Tying company identities to their business proves legitimacy as those companies without proper credentials will not even be able to complete step one. General contractors who are in charge of the project will register the project specifics, their information and that of all their subcontractors. This is powerful because it sets the baseline for what contractors will be accountable for. Also, knowing the scope of the project will help determine if the workers listed are appropriate. For instance, if a project requires 100 workers and only 20 are listed, this would be a red flag. All parties involved in a project would be mandated to enter their information into the registry for each of their employees, including a pre-qualification questionnaire that includes information on labor practices that will be used to shed light on possible instances of trafficking or forced labor. These items have been identified in partnership with UNSEEN-UK. They include:

These are somewhat simple items that may be collected anyway. Any certifications or documentation needed to be considered to work will also be requested. This is the first step towards payment transparency within the construction space. It ensures that subcontractors are being paid on time, and conversely, that work being done is completed and compliant. In terms of convenience, users will only have to enter this information once. The software would maintain records and automated features would make it simple for collaborators to enter information and not have to revisit or think about it again.

A key aspect of the registry will be the ability to provide ratings for each subcontractor when issuing work. Ratings will be weighted according to proximity of relationship with the subcontractor. Ideally, these ratings will be able to reveal good actors in the space. Currently, only the UK provides ratings for businesses and their supply chain transparency (Act, 2015). Perhaps, a later iteration of this registry will be able to include such ratings in addition to ratings that may be developed through further data analytics derived from thier registry.

The subcontractor registry will allows owners to better select their prime and specialty contractors, while systemically monitoring their adherence to labor compliances thorough the entire project lifecycle by review them with each payment and before release retainage.

Three major cities in North America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia will be the first to test the Global Subcontractor Registry. In addition to universal aspects of the registry (such as the trafficking portion of the questionnaire), cities may set up, sign and update compliances within the registry. As assumed by it’s name- the goal of the Global Subcontractor Registry is to create a global index of subcontractors. The registry will provide information such as ratings, compliances and quality of work, which will naturally reveal a hierarchy of subcontractors. Once enough information is collected, the Global Subcontratcor Registry will be able to function as a central platform where project managers may find resources that are rated high for their work, meeting compliances and transparency. The registry will operationalize all rating schemes to fit into this framework so that it is something that developers may include in their practice.


The Global Subcontractor Registry operates on the premise of collaboration with corporations, something rarely practiced in anti-trafficking efforts. It does this by emphasizing the role that construction companies can play in the increase of transparency- instead of asking them to “fix” a trafficking problem. Many companies do not want to admit to trafficking and modern day slavery even if they are aware of it. For some, they feel it will impact their bottom line and for others- they just don’t know enough to feel confident that they can do anything. This is why being able to create a solution like the Global Subcontractor Registry that is part of ERP platforms that companies are already using and familiar with will increase the probability of use and participation. Technologies such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) and blockchain may be used to disrupt trafficking in the construction industry. For instance, BIM modeling is currently being used in many construction projects and it bridges any information gaps and provide context for construction projects in several dimensions from model to cost (Čuš-Babič, N., Rebolj, D., Nekrep-Perc, M., & Podbreznik, P., 2014) . Also, Blockchain is currently being used to verify or safekeep identities and track the supply chain within programs such as Providence, ConsenSys and more (Capri, 2018; United Nations, 2018; Sundararajan, 2017). While this has not yet fully been adopted by construction, it is only a matter of time that it will be incorporated to various portions of the supply chain and overall life cycle. Trafficking and modern day slavery is an epidemic affecting millions of people. Around the world. The traditional interventions of policy change (ie: more legislation enacted), practice interventions and even research are not moving fast enough to disrupt and end trafficking. It is imperative to have new partners and innovation in spaces that are out of the ordinary and able to address the needs of all stakeholders in collaborations that will instigate widespread transformation

Editor’s note As there are too many references to include in this edition I suggest you contact authors for a full list Annalisa Enrile [email protected] Oliver Ritchie [email protected]