Contending that forced labor and "modern-day slavery" remain a lingering problem in global manufacture of construction materials despite international bans, a Connecticut advocacy group is funding a new effort by top design and construction industry executives to use collective purchase power and big data to end abusive practices.

Grace Farms Foundation, the New Canaan-based non-profit, said on Sept. 4 it has launched the GFF Architecture + Construction Working Group, led by more than 50 industry leaders, that aims to push more scrutiny of the materials supply chain in construction, develop a list of “slave-free” project specifications and metrics and provide criteria for responsible sourcing. 

A foundation spokeswoman says it is "actively pursuing" efforts to add anti-slavery or exploitation-free requirements for materials to construction specifications, procurement documents and contracts.

"Modern-day slavery will not be suppressed economically until building contractors can identify and refuse to purchase timber, steel, iron, stone, glass, bricks, electronics and other materials and products manufactured with forced labor," said Sharon Prince, Grace Farms Foundation president and founder. “The construction industry has not yet grappled with [its] impact on labor and products in design and construction."

She claims that slave labor in global supply chains in construction and other sectors "is used to subsidize increased returns on investment."

Targeting Products

The 2018 U.S. Labor Dept. report on produced goods using forced labor and child labor lists 148 products from 76 countries, including 10 just added last year, and a number of construction materials.  

More than 50 executives have joined the working group, mostly from leading architecture firms, the American Institute of Architects and architecture schools and media, including Cathleen McGuigan, editor-in chief of ENR sister publication Architectural Record.

Also joining are Joe Mizzi and Jay Gorman, president and senior project manager, respectively, of Sciame Construction and Jhaelen Hernandez-Eli, senior vice president of capital planning, design & construction at the New York City Economic Development Corp.

The foundation says group member Deborah Berke, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, will launch a guest speaker series at the university next spring on materials production issues, and AIA "has begun to review material procurement policies."

Efforts also will focus on "how we incentivize the industry to collect data and develop industry-wide standards and best-practices, including ... closing legal and policy loopholes that perpetuate the illegal use of forced labor," says the working group website,

The spokeswoman acknowledges that employers of group members "do not formally support the initiative." but that a number of participants are owners or principals of their organizations or businesses.

More owners, contractors and materials firm representatives will be asked to join the working group. "We do not seek to blacklist; rather, we seek to build awareness and advocate for systemic change," she says.

Laws such as the U.S. Trade Facilitation and Enforcement Act of 2015—which prohibits all forced-labor produced goods from being imported into American markets—as well as similar bans in the U.K., France and Australia provide "a legal imperative to make ethical decisions,"  she says.

'$150-Billion Criminal Industry'

"Slavery and trafficking is nearly universally outlawed, yet it remains a $150-billion criminal industry" in global commerce, says the spokeswoman.

"The global construction industry is one of the largest industrial sectors in the world. The creation of international and domestic policy is not enough. Too few people are aware of the regulations and they are difficult to enforce," she continues.

"To bring these laws into effect ... it is necessary to develop industry-specific principles, standards, guidelines and practices, and to socialize their implementation.".

The Working Group will also create a "related ethical code of conduct that will encourage" the global construction industry "to be compliant and find ways to increase compliance efficiency," the spokeswoman notes.

The Grace Farms spokeswoman did not disclose the amount of foundation funding for the construction supply-chain effort, saying it is "too soon to discuss the specific budget."

She says the foundation is "committed to providing the added resources and team needed to launch this high-priority project,"  but says it also will seek outside financial support for programs, training, tools and policy making.