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20 Sep 2021

Isobel Archer, Gulf Programme Manager, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre,
Joe Kibugu, Africa Regional Manager, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Recruitment agencies are a weak link in the fight against migrant worker torture

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Since 2016, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has recorded 51 cases where migrant workers from over ten African countries were abused by private companies, or individuals who recruited them through an agency, in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Thirty of those cases (58%) have occurred since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region, reflecting the disastrous impact the pandemic has had, particularly on migrant workers. A recent report revealed horrific abuse of African workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) occurring on a huge scale. At the same time, a leading trade unionist in Kenya highlighted the need to regulate recruitment agencies, with the damning indictment of labour supply companies contributing to modern slavery. Drawing from challenges as well as recent developments in Kenya, effective regulation of recruitment agencies could be a positive step and intervention towards protecting migrant workers from abuses.

When facilitated fairly and responsibly, migration for work undoubtedly has huge social and economic potential benefits for families, communities and whole countries who rely on remittances. However, the script is too familiar for many migrants and their families. Each year, thousands of young people from Africa look for opportunities to improve their livelihoods in the Gulf. Approaching a recruitment agency, they may be offered an opportunity to work in the Gulf – but only in exchange for extortionate recruitment fees.

Though fees are illegal in destination countries like Qatar or the UAE, aspiring migrant workers are often forced to raise thousands of dollars before departure, having to sell crucial family assets like land or livestock. A visa is processed and often the recruit is unaware of the details of their employer or the receiving agency at their destination, and may be misled about the nature of the assignment awaiting them. Slave-like conditions of employment, including detention in deplorable conditions, working for long hours, sexual harassment and arbitrary detentions, reportedly await migrants on arrival. Some have been punished for seeking to communicate to their kinsmen back home. In extreme cases, some are killed. According to authorities, at least 30 Ugandans are killed every year by their Gulf employers. Ethiopian migrant workers have been detained in hellish conditions in Saudi Arabia.

It does not have to be like this: one death or abusive detention is far too many. Young men and women should not be returning home in caskets, having suffered physical or psychological trauma. Given reports of rising numbers of potential migrant workers in Kenya, there is an urgent need to ensure the recruitment agencies involved in securing migrant workers are held accountable.

Among governments, returned workers and Kenyan civil society there is slow-growing deep frustration and awareness that recruitment agencies are a weak link in protecting workers. In 2019, a Kenyan worker formerly trapped in Iraq called for regulation of recruitment agencies as an important step in protecting migrant workers. Later that year, a Kenyan official committed to crack down on complicit agencies but not until last year did the government labour secretary admit that weak regulation of recruitment agencies actively contributes to the suffering and exploitation of Kenyans working abroad.

Companies in destination countries (particularly those subject to mandatory human rights due diligence in country of headquarters) are starting to turn their attention further down their supply chains to labour providers. A growing awareness of the need for robust human rights due diligence in recruitment practices means companies are looking beyond their own employers to the working and living conditions of their outsourced staff. Besides domestic work, hundreds of thousands of East Africans are recruited to the Gulf to work for security, cleaning and construction companies. In turn, these companies may provide labour to clients including hotels and entertainment venues which are themselves seeking to increase transparency on who they source workers from. Recruitment agencies must be ready to show evidence of safeguards against recruitment fees and contract substitution if they want to win the most lucrative contracts and continue to place workers abroad.

Perhaps aware of this reality, the Association of Skilled Migrant Agencies (ASMAK) has adopted codes of conduct for its over 85 strong membership, setting a precedent for requiring agencies to adhere to a standard of “ethical” recruitment. The Kenyan Government has said Kenya is in the process of enacting legislation to regulate recruitment agencies. The country has also established the Kenya National Employment Authority to regulate recruitment agencies. Uganda is reconsidering its bilateral agreements with Middle East and Gulf countries in light of growing reports of abuse of migrant workers.

However, while these developments are a step in the right direction, they are insufficient. The suspension of Ugandan recruitment agencies suspected of complicity in abuses suggests the agencies may not have been properly regulated, as if they were, the Government would not have resorted to this extreme response. Codes of conduct cannot be relied upon by victims to seek accountability; relatives in distress have failed to obtain any helpful information from recruitment agencies bound by voluntary codes. United Manpower Services, an ASMAK member, recently responded to concerns regarding a distressed Kenyan domestic worker it placed in Saudi Arabia, and who later died, by simply stating the relevant government agency was dealing with the case. It is therefore imperative that such regulatory bodies be given the requisite statutory and technical support to protect migrant workers.

The abuse is by no means limited to Kenyan and Ugandan workers: Sudanese, Ghanaian and Zimbabwean workers experience exploitation and abuse in industries as diverse as the military, security and de-mining. A two-pronged approach is necessary to raise the standard of working conditions abroad: governments must take seriously their ability and responsibility to hold recruiters to account and agencies must accept the need to raise their transparency and safeguard against abusive practices as they place workers abroad. Until this happens, recruitment agencies will continue to send workers abroad under deception, burdened with the debt of recruitment fees and to unsafe and exploitative jobs.

Written by Isobel Archer (Gulf Programme Manager) and Joe Kibugu (Africa Regional Manager).