Are poor labour practices lurking within your supply chain?

Adam Whitfield, quality assurance and audit programme manager at supplier information and supply chain management firm, Achilles

The utilities industry is in the midst of a major global shift as the world seeks to decarbonise, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and developing vital new technologies. As the UK strives to meet its Net Zero Carbon target by 2050, the pace of change will be rapid; major infrastructure projects will be ramped up, accompanied by significant investment in new energy generation capabilities.

Utilities businesses are working hard to adopt new low carbon technologies and adapt existing infrastructure, and there’s no denying it’s a time of huge opportunity – both for established players as well as new entrants seeking to make their mark on the sector. It’s a significant transformation and an incredibly exciting time for the utilities industry – however, this unprecedented era of growth and renewal isn’t without risk when it comes to managing a resilient, compliant and ethical supply chain.

As the race to Net Zero accelerates and the market grows, assembling, managing and maintaining a supply chain that meets expected standards has become more challenging. Unfortunately, amid the Net Zero investment boom and rising demand for low carbon technologies, sub-standard, unethical supply chain practices have found the space to develop in a range of areas, including manufacturing, logistics networks and on construction sites – both globally and within the UK.

Businesses that fail to uphold high standards throughout their supply chain not only risk incurring financial penalties, but also significant reputational damage from which their brand may not recover.

Emerging ethical concerns

Since 2016, Achilles has been working closely with several main contractors within the utilities industry as they deliver large infrastructure projects –  as the drive for renewable energy accelerates, some contractors are pinpointing emerging challenges within some of their lower supply chains where poor labour practices are emerging, including modern slavery through and working arrangements that equate to forced labour. As new companies enter the utilities market and large projects ramp up, contractors are using agencies and staff that they haven’t engaged with previously, and are identifying issues which they believed had been eradicated. These issues are not something that is pinpointed in the occasional supply chain audit, but are increasingly being found on a daily -basis throughout the supply chain – from factories where raw materials are manufactured, to the transport process and finally on construction sites where new projects are coming out of the ground.

Poor labour practices

Common offences include the charging of administration fees to bring workers below the minimum wage, as well as a lack of checks for permission to work in the UK, which raises red flags about workers’ identities and how they arrived in the country. On some sites, workers have been given fines and informed that they can work to pay off the fine, or have been charged for PPE and not provided with terms and conditions of employment.

In recent months, contractors are identifying issues like this on utilities projects throughout the UK, as much as several times each week – it is a growing problem that has been fueled by the Net Zero boom and the entrance of new businesses within the market to support the volume of work to be delivered.

Reputational risks

Poor labour practices are hugely damaging for a business should such issues be allowed to proliferate within their supply chain. Any negative reputational impact could wield a significant blow to a brand, leading to damage that cannot be shaken off and, for listed businesses, would likely be accompanied by a fall in share price which would rattle investors and make senior leaders’ positions untenable. 

It’s highly likely that supply chain offences would also result in partners, collaborators and suppliers reviewing their associations with that particularly company.

Tougher legislation for offences

There is certainly more focus on companies who have not been able to demonstrate appropriate due diligence and supply chain transparency.

Proposed new legislation in relation to modern slavery would also carry a heavy penalty for directors, making it a criminal offence for a person responsible for a modern slavery statement to knowingly or recklessly supply a false or materially incomplete statement with a possibility of up to two years’ imprisonment and fine of 4% of annual global turnover.

So, what is best practice in responsible sourcing? 

And how can utilities businesses ensure that their supply chain is meeting the right standards and safeguard against risks as the utilities market expands?

Trusted networks and targeted insight

At a time of significant change and huge investment in innovation and new technologies, it’s more important than ever for utility companies to maintain transparency within the supply chain. Achilles’ UVDB pre-qualification system supports utility businesses to achieve the highest standards of supply chain assurance.

With advanced data tools and insight to source the right suppliers, and buyers sourcing partners via UVDB, it allows companies to make informed decisions about their suppliers. The network supports the utility industry in minimising risk throughout the supply chain, helping to prevent damaging issues.

An effective supplier assurance scheme plays a major role in resilient, compliant and ethical supply chains.

Achilles’ Labour Practice Audit

Achilles’ Labour Practice Audit gathers insights from employees and HR related policies and processes to provide an additional level of rigour to utility companies’ Code of Conduct, CSR and modern slavery statements. A team of highly qualified auditors interview employees working on nominated sites, and audit management systems and processes.

Covering a range of issues such as working conditions and rights, pay, knowledge and implementation of relevant policies and processes, audits can be completed as a one off, ad hoc exercise or on an annual basis. The objective is to demonstrate a company’s commitment to ensuring the fair treatment of employees, enhance the transparency and visibility of working practices within the supply chain, and to provide an independent, impartial view of supplier or contractor performance.

The resulting insight provides visibility on how labour practices are cascaded, giving businesses the tools to drive better compliance and risk management.

Inspections and audit

Inspections and reporting on the use of audit will be mandated by 2022, regardless of the country of operation, which all utilities businesses operating in the UK will be required to comply with. Failure to do so could not only incur criminal penalties, but also import bans and exclusion from operating – very serious consequences for getting this wrong and failing to manage a sound supply chain.

Operating a transparent supply chain

Utility companies operate complex supply chains – the expansion of the sector amid a swathe of new opportunities introduces new risk and enhances that complexity. It has never been more important to maintain transparency throughout the supply chain, from manufacture through to delivery of projects. Some businesses are focused on activity taking place on site, but it’s vital to dig deeper than that to look at how products are made and the conditions within those factories, and even how raw materials are mined. That is very challenging but the use of networks like UVDB and comprehensive auditing processes will support in reducing the risk while signaling a commitment to ethical, responsible sourcing. 

Regular dialogue with suppliers creates open and fluid lines of communication and helps to ensure that any concerns can be flagged to the appropriate person, diverting larger problems before they develop. Regular dialogue throughout the supply chain will help to build a transparent supply chain.

Industry Collaboration

Given the scale of the challenge, collaboration is vital if poor labour practices are to be prevented from seeping into the industry as the Net Zero boom continues over the coming months and years. Shared influence is very powerful and will be vital in stamping out bad practice within the industry.

Supply Chain Mapping

Sharing best practice and engaging closely with not just tier 1 suppliers, but tiers 2 and 3 – which is usually where most of these issues will be found – is more important than ever. Businesses must be clear and firm on their position, making it clear their expectations and their commitment to upholding those standards. High level analysis from partners like Achilles, and the sharing of insight and knowledge within the industry will allow businesses to focus on risk factors and drive improvements.

The efficacy of risk mapping depends on the frequency and accuracy of level of detail, identifying and tracking any issues.

It’s vital that utility businesses aren’t complacent about supply chain assurance – working with supply chain experts like Achilles, businesses must remain alert to the potential for a recurrence of poor or unethical supply chain practices amidst the race to benefit from the Net Zero boom, safeguarding their reputation and preventing costly mistakes.

A collaborative, evidence-based approach built on trusted insight and industry knowledge will be key to supporting the utilities industry in establishing – and maintaining – sector-wide ethical standards and ensuring that best practice and shared values are present throughout the entirety of the supply chain.