How can responsible recruitment of migrant workers move from rhetoric to reality?

30/7/19 - Andy Hall, Migrant Worker Rights Specialist

Andy Hall details the challenges to responsible recruitment, and argues innovative new models should be piloted to help end forced labour of migrant workers.

In June 2019, the then UK Prime Minister Theresa May told to the International Labour Conference:

The UK … is piloting an innovative new programme that will improve responsible recruitment in parts of our public sector supply chains that pass through Asia. And the more nations that subscribe to this approach, the more effective it will be.’

The need for a responsible recruitment drive is great. But how can we move beyond the rhetoric and make responsible recruitment a reality?

Forced labour and migrant workers

Recent years have seen growing interest in combatting forced labour, particularly when resulting from workers’ recruitment into debt bondage. Media investigations and civil society campaigns have galvanised domestic regulations and international frameworks that encourage or mandate - in particular by companies, investors and states - more due diligence and proactive efforts to prevent modern-day slavery.  

Yet expensive, non-transparent and exploitative worker recruitment means that bonded labourers still frequently end up in multi-national companies’ supply chains, despite corporate employer-pays or zero-cost, fair, ethical or responsible recruitment policies. Migrants workers recruited to work overseas are particularly vulnerable. 

There is currently much rhetoric but little measurable progress in ensuring responsible recruitment of migrant workers. Commitment of resources and genuine effort alongside effective due diligence, monitoring and enforcement is rarely evident beyond the rhetoric. Lack of grassroots knowledge and experience of how best to support responsible recruitment is also impeding progress. A radical change of mindset and approach is therefore urgently needed. 

Efforts towards a different model

Global buyers and their suppliers often inform recruitment agencies not to use ‘risky’ or ‘hard to control’ third parties. Yet few global companies support agencies in implementing alternative recruitment models that don’t use third-parties. In addition, despite their use being banned or discouraged, rarely is effective monitoring and control of these actors attempted during recruitment processes.

As a result, aspiring ‘responsible’ recruitment agencies often claim workers processed for work overseas are recruited directly. Auditors tasked with monitoring recruitment agencies’ activities and providing companies with an agency 'white-list' are told that effective advertising and referral processes allow direct recruitment. But these agencies often don’t disclose their actual reliance on costly third-parties to recruit and process workers, whether during self-assessment nor in audits.  

By contrast, some honest recruitment agencies are open about their dependency on third-parties, reporting employers that request quotations which hide third party costs, and trying to prevent money being taken from workers. 

However, migrant workers often don’t reveal the full extent of what they pay recruitment agencies and related third parties. Workers are increasingly threatened or coached - sometimes with the complicity of their employers - to only report payments made to official agencies, in compliance with local laws, or, if more generous, their employer’s recruitment policy. 

This lack of disclosure by workers and recruitment agencies is generally not uncovered by social compliance audits. Workers are regularly forced to sign affidavits or appear in video statements prior to departure stating they didn't pay excessive fees or expenses. 

Unethical agencies block progress 

Too often linked to political power, agencies in migrant workers' origin and destination countries are central to a thriving ‘kickbacks’ model of recruitment. Many sought-after documents required by agencies for processing workers from village to workplace are actually paid for. The cost of these bribes for the ‘right to recruit' - alongside entertainment costs like hotels, meals, alcohol and sex workers - are borne first by agencies and then ultimately by workers. 

As a result of this 'kickbacks' model, companies frequently avoid recruitment costs for the workers they hire. In rare cases where a company or its buyers do cover recruitment costs for their workers, agencies may take money both from an employer and a worker. Recruitment agencies also frequently enable and cover up systemic corruption by government officials in bureaucratic recruitment processes, in countries of origin, transit and destination. 

Fake responsible recruitment is flourishing

A lack of commitment and limited knowledge on how to employ innovative practices makes it difficult to ensure responsible recruitment, and to tackle the rise of ‘fake’ responsible or zero-cost recruitment. This is despite the evident increase in private sector and government or donor-funded responsible recruitment projects, platforms, certification frameworks and commitments

Responsible recruitment cannot be mainstreamed if states and companies do not have internationally compliant regulations and policies to promote it; nor when such regulations and policies are enacted but not enforced. Likewise, enactment of unrealistic policies and regulations on responsible recruitment also hampers progress. 

Most employers, buyers and investors still don’t ensure realistic recruitment costs and expenses are covered. Some multi-national companies claim a commitment to responsible recruitment but often will not acknowledge that it results in increased costs for them and their suppliers. Nor do they want to pay these costs.

As a result, sustainable levels of profit required for operating transparent and responsible recruitment cannot be made without also charging recruited workers. Government limits on what recruitment costs can be charged may also be too tight for legitimate agencies to prosper. 

Responsible recruitment can also be enforced contractually between private sector or government buyers and their suppliers. However, such social compliance issues rarely feature in contracts or codes of conduct. Where responsible recruitment is contractual, purchasing prices often fail to take into account how recruitment costs and production timelines can undermine responsible processes.  

As a result of this limited private sector and government commitment, it’s entirely predictable that responsible or zero-cost recruitment is not being achieved in practice. It is also predictable that actors at the end of recruitment supply chains in origin countries will take significant sums of money from workers, both to cover the real costs of recruitment, but also to pay all private sector and government actors in a bloated and un-regulated supply chain. 

Pilots are needed for real change

In order to promote responsible recruitment, innovative recruitment models of the kind mentioned by the then UK Prime Minister above need to be piloted. The challenges encountered in implementing these pilots also need to be highlighted and disseminated widely, along with the means to overcome them.  

For example, since 2015, Thai Union Group has worked with the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) in monitoring its recruiters' use of sub-agents in recruiting more than 30,000 workers from Myanmar to Thailand. Despite its challenges, this innovative model of interactive recruitment should be evaluated and built upon. 

Electronics Watch's practical guidance, informed by challenges in the Cal-Comp case, suggests worker-driven social monitoring of recruitment must complement or replace auditing if responsible recruitment is to be achieved, and if companies’ due diligence against debt bondage is to be more effective. 

Ensuring workers are provided opportunities to safely express grievances during recruitment processes, including 3-6 months after arriving at their workplaces, can assist in uncovering excessive fees, contract substitution and other non-transparent conduct. This is because migrant workers are desperate job-seekers under coercion from agencies and other third parties, and may therefore take time to truthfully report their exploitation. Additionally, if used ethically, worker driven mobile applications such as the ITUC’s Recruitment Advisor can be a useful tool.   

More transparency by companies, business associations, NGOs and private sector consultants is also needed to spread the word about what works and doesn't. Non-disclosure agreements are too often cited by these actors to prevent the sharing of potentially good practices by companies. Worse still, good practice is sometimes treated as a commercial secret.      

States should have regulations and companies enact policies that are realistic and enforced to promote responsible recruitment. Employers and buyers should cover recruitment costs and related expenses, so responsible recruitment markets can make sustainable levels of profit without charging workers. 

Employers must be required to open procurement tenders and consider transparent and realistic quotations from responsible recruitment agencies. Responsible recruitment should be measurable and enforced contractually between buyers and their suppliers. 

Workers also need effective remedy

While driving responsible recruitment forward, remedies for systemic debt bondage of workers already unfairly recruited must also be ensured. Exploited migrants who took out loans with exorbitant rates of interest, or who sold all of their physical assets to migrate in the hope of a better future, must urgently be paid back for these fees.    

Yet remediation requirements in the private sector under Principle 22 of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights when applied to  irresponsible recruitment linked to global companies remain un-fulfilled, both in theory and in practice. A 2018 pledge by the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada to apply responsible recruitment to public procurement supply chains remains rhetorical, and fails to mention remediation at all. 

From rhetoric to reality

To sum up, responsible recruitment can only become the norm if rhetoric is matched by practice. This would involve innovative and realistic recruitment models being piloted and evaluated, with the lessons learnt shared openly and widely. More commitment of resources and effort from all stakeholders - especially companies - is also essential in paying the real costs of responsible recruitment.

Worker-driven social monitoring can contribute to effective due diligence by companies to bring about genuine responsible recruitment. And finally, remediation must be assured for workers who have already paid with all their physical assets, or are indebted to loans with exorbitant interest rates. By these means the rhetoric of responsible recruitment can become a reality. 

Andy Hall is a Migrant Worker Rights Specialist