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What lessons have we learnt for worker’s rights in the built environment?

Our Better Places for People leadership series profiles organisations leading the transition towards a healthier and more equitable built environment. As the built environment moves towards net zero, the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and Multiplex explore the opportunity to ensure that human dignity is ‘designed in’ for construction workers. 

Construction provides employment and jobs for 7% of the world’s workforce — the potential for impact is immense.

This is particularly the case as the sector’s predominantly migrant workforce are vulnerable to exploitation. This can include wage theft, unsafe workplaces and accommodation, excessive hours and pressures on mental health. These vulnerabilities reflect the broader structural issues within our economic system that can create social inequity and natural system breakdown. To respond effectively, we need an overhaul — backed up by levers within the built environment system, and linked closely to complex subsystems within insurance, finance, design and construction.

Yet we’re already beginning to see a major culture shift, as COVID-19 has spotlighted the centrality of the built environment in people’s lives. The engineering and construction sector have experienced unprecedented challenges during the pandemic as so many of us have. Amongst them are site closures, supply chain disruptions and changing definitions of ‘essential’ workers, with many vulnerable workers facing greater health risks, layoffs and contract terminations.

Social equity frameworks and principles

We now have key frameworks for action which provide the north star. These include:

We know the tide is finally turning; Morningstar, the data provider, has shown that assets in sustainable mutual funds globally reached a record high of $1tn during the second quarter of 2020, suggesting that now more than ever profitability is tied with sustainability performance.

How do we bring these frameworks into reality?

Putting these Frameworks into practice will need scaled action by not only policymakers but all actors in the economic system. Taking a systems-based lens means that regulation and public procurement will play an initial critical role by catalysing action, providing the directional incentives for business leaders, and spurring the financial system to transform to achieve the wider system change needed for social equity to be addressed in the built environment.

Certifications to drive social equity

Secondly, for both policy and financial system levers to be applied consistently in the built environment there needs to be acceptable standards for implementation, measurement and certification.

Initiatives to expand the scope of green building certifications to incorporate social equity criteria are welcome in this regard. Drawing on the green building certifications such as LEED, BREEAM, GreenStar and many more, they have been very successful in performance standardisation, implementation and rating measurement against environmental goals and requirements at an asset-level.

For social equity, green building rating systems are well placed to offer a consistent ‘social matrix’ that marries the practical process, systems and assurance required at an asset level. The British Research Establishment (BRE), for example, has initiated a Social Impact Technical Working Group to commence working on these developments, which together with other initiatives will lay the path for embedding social parameters within existing green rating systems.

There is a real opportunity to leverage green building systems so that the asset owners and investors in property embed respect for human dignity throughout the whole building life cycle. Ranging from project requirements, to procurement contracts, to certification, to ongoing tracking and communications throughout the asset’s lifespan.

At the same time, only some projects will aim for and secure certification. We need to see social equity approaches normalised — encompassing participation, workers’ rights, physical and mental health, access to housing and public space – becoming business as usual from the outset of all projects.

Finance as a lever for social equity

Future-fit investment portfolios will need to carefully manage both physical risks and transition risks for both natural systems and social inequity, using green building rating systems to assess and reward those risks and opportunities appropriately. In effect, this translates as a call to action for all rating tools to consider not just the health and wellbeing of occupants, but the wider health and social impacts on workers and communities throughout the building lifecycle.

To achieve this collaboration is essential: breaking out of the silos between policy-makers, industry, civil society and workers themselves.

Through 2021 up to the COP26 summit and beyond, IHRB, Multiplex and World Green Building Council are each bringing their strengths to the table, working with multiple partners to advance social equity for workers and communities in the built environment.

Source: IHRB – Framework for Dignity in the Built Environment


About IHRB

Founded in 2009, IHRB is the leading international think tank on business and human rights. IHRB’s mission is to shape policy, advance practice, and strengthen accountability in order to make respect for human rights part of everyday business.

Since its founding, IHRB has established a number of organisations and initiatives that are now free-standing, namely: the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB), Centro Regional de Empresas y Emprendimientos Responsables (CREER), the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB), and the Centre for Sport and Human Rights (CSHR).


About Multiplex 

Multiplex is an established global construction company and has been building iconic projects around the world for over 55 years. Their teams work closely with their partners and clients to create net positive impacts for people, communities and the environment with each project they undertake.


About the WorldGBC Health and Wellbeing Framework

WorldGBC’s Health & Wellbeing Framework catalyses social impact across the entire built environment value chain.

Grounded in the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development, the WorldGBC’s Health & Wellbeing Framework drives healthy and equitable buildings in harmony with nature.

After a multi-year global consultation, our Heath & Wellbeing Framework offers a comprehensive educational tool for a healthy and equitable built environment.

Convening expertise across the built environment, health and human rights, the Framework is published as an executive report and live digital tool. An innovation of this work is a cross-sectoral analysis across the entire building and construction lifestyle — redefining the scope of health for all people and their buildings, cities and communities.

With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing the link between the built environment and human health into focus, the Framework’s six principles span indoor air quality, human rights in the supply chain, climate change resilience and more.



Tessa Eydmann-Peel, PR and Communications Coordinator, World Green Building Council  +44 (0) 7932491571