Debt bondage, appalling working conditions and the death of nearly 1,000 migrant workers at construction sites in Qatar—in the lead-up to the FIFA World Cup in 2022—have focused the world’s attention on labor abuses at high-profile construction projects. The construction of New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus in the United Arab Emirates has also been the subject of recent allegations of harsh working conditions, and China’s construction industry has long been dogged by health- and safety-related deaths.
It is challenging to ensure that international labor standards are implemented consistently over the lifespan of large multi-year infrastructure projects in developing countries, and part of the problem stems from the multiplicity of employers on-site during different project phases. These large-scale projects often involve extreme variations in the level of contractor and subcontractor compliance when it comes to requirements such as awareness of basic health and safety risks, pay practices, fair treatment, and the availability and effectiveness of grievance mechanisms. Where conventional social compliance auditing is used to assess working conditions, remediation is complicated by the rotation of contractors and subcontractors throughout the life of the project.
Verité is working with a global company on an innovative worker-centered approach to this perennial problem on a multi-year, multi-billion dollar construction project in Shanghai. Over the course of this project, there could be up to 20 general contractors, multiple layers of subcontractors, and 13,000 – 15,000 workers onsite at peak times. The site owner—acutely aware of media and NGO focus on labor abuses at large-scale construction projects across the globe—wanted to ensure that the labor standards framework would be implemented consistently by every entity working on the site during every phase of the project, irrespective of contract duration. One of the operational mechanisms used to achieve this goal—given the scale, diversity, and transitory nature of the workforce—was a worker helpline developed, implemented, and managed by Verité.
The worker helpline was designed to give workers a voice and the opportunity to verify that the site’s working and living conditions met the owner’s standards. For contractors and subcontractors, the helpline continues to provide a consistent channel of communication fully integrated with the project-wide grievance procedure. The helpline gives the construction management firm, general contractors and owner a continuous source of information that increases visibility into working and living conditions across the entire project and serves as an early warning system in the event of potential problems.
Hosted and managed onsite by Verité specialists who are available to all workers on the project, helpline service protocols are covered in mandatory orientation training for every worker onsite. Worker concerns or complaints—other than basic questions about terms and conditions of employment, welfare programs, or requests for counselling referrals—are logged into a project database as grievances and assigned by the appropriate general contractor to designated management representatives at the relevant subcontractor. With the exception of zero tolerance violations, workers can request that their identity not be revealed when grievances are logged. Helpline operators track responses and verify closure status. The helpline operation protocols give general contractors a given timeframe within which to address different categories of issues. Issues not followed up on in a timely fashion are escalated to the construction management companies onsite. Verité provides weekly status reports to the owner on the number, category, and status of cases raised with the helpline.
The helpline infrastructure is also used to periodically survey workers on welfare activities, effectiveness of training modules, and specific concerns such as end-of-year payments. On a quarterly basis, the owner reviews a detailed summary of workers’ concerns during the period, critical issues and risks, and the response of contractors and subcontractors onsite as well as trends over the life of the project.
Over 80% of workers onsite report that they are aware of the helpline’s existence and the services available to them, and over half of those workers have used it. Of those who have used the helpline, 82% express complete satisfaction with how their request or grievance was handled. On a cumulative basis, almost 99% of complaints or grievances have been resolved.
Through this large-scale infrastructure project, Verité is committed to empowering workers—giving them a say when it comes to their rights and working conditions. It is a vital element in a comprehensive approach to ensure the consistent application of an effective labor standards framework.