Future of Work

How can we ensure fair – and safe – working conditions for migrants?

Lara White
Senior Labour Mobility Specialist, International Organization for Migration
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Future of Work

When workers seek employment overseas, they often engage the services of private recruitment and employment agents who use international networks to match workers with employment opportunities. Ideally, these intermediaries can contribute to labour mobility through the provision of efficient and professional job-matching services that benefit both parties.

However, the business model for international labour recruitment in some key migration corridors is commonly based on a ‘worker pay’ model that contributes to debt bondage and predatory lending schemes that can amount to up to two years of salary, thereby making workers more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse during their employment.

Acknowledging how this diminishes the development potential of migration, the international community is focusing on how to decrease migration costs, beginning with those fees associated with the recruitment and deployment of migrant workers that are often linked to forced labour in global supply chains. The question of course, is ‘how?’

Gaps in governance

Among governments, employers, the recruitment industry and civil society organizations, no one stakeholder group can resolve this problem on its own. In keeping with the ‘UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Business’ “Protect, Respect, Remedy” framework, governments are under pressure to better regulate the recruitment industry and to enforce the laws that do exist. However, due to the extraterritorial nature of international recruitment, the complexity of the legal frameworks governing both employment and immigration, and the high price tag for enforcement, governments struggle to adequately regulate the variety of legal and illicit intermediaries involved.

This governance gap has led to negative consequences for workers, and has also created an uneven playing field for recruitment industry professionals who are committed to practicing their trade in an ethical and transparent manner.

While unlicensed agents are able to prosper by disregarding licensing provisions intended to protect migrant workers, charging exorbitant fees, confiscating identity documents, misrepresenting job offers, and offering their services to employers at sometimes little or no cost, “ethical recruiters” are left to struggle with red tape, tight profit margins, and a client culture that may not see the medium and long-term value of competency-based hiring.

The need for an ‘employer pays’ model

While governments need to do more to regulate recruitment activities, government regulation alone is not enough. Companies, too, have an obligation to respect the rule of law and to ensure that workers they hire directly or who work in their supply chains are recruited fairly.

A call to action has been sounded for the business community to support an ‘employer pays’ model of international recruitment. Several multinational companies in key sectors employing migrant workers – such as electronics, agriculture and light manufacturing – have adopted ‘no fees to workers’ policies in their sustainability protocols. This comes partially out of a greater understanding that when migrant workers are involved, the corollary between unethical recruitment and forced labour is clear. Additionally, through regulatory requirements such as those embedded in the UK’s Modern Slavery Act and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, companies are required to report on their efforts to minimize the risk of human trafficking and forced labour in their business activities.

From the end-user perspective, the absence of robust interjurisdictional government regulation means businesses must make efforts beyond reliance on licensing and proactively change their engagement with recruitment intermediaries. Actualizing an ‘employer pays’ model begins with a closer examination of procurement processes to ensure transparency of true labour costs and recruitment costs, as well as serial liability provisions when services are subcontracted.

A further challenge remains in enforcing these requirements throughout supplier networks and the complex and interwoven labour supply chains that facilitate the movement of workers from their communities of origin to the workplace. This entails an increase in social auditing protocols that go beyond the factory floor, along with support for certification processes that bolster this commitment.

In order to help bolster support for this kind of demand-driven approach, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and a coalition of businesses, governments and civil society organizations are currently developing the International Recruitment Integrity System (IRIS), a voluntary multi-stakeholder certification process for international recruitment intermediaries. Due to be pilot tested in 2016, this tool will enable businesses to identify and support agencies that demonstrate a commitment to ethical recruitment.

The success of an ‘employer pays’ model will require further collaboration between government and business to ensure the harmonization of their regulatory efforts, but also increased dialogue with migrant workers and their representatives to ensure that grievances are heard, addressed and remediated. ‘Top down’ corporate policies must meet ‘bottom-up’ information gathering in order to create assurance of sustained, long-term impact on the migration stories of affected workers.

Sustainable solutions for eliminating unethical recruitment  

This autumn saw the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, identifying targets for 2030 as well as indicators for achieving them. Decent work for all is central to these goals, and the labour rights of migrants are specifically recognised under Goal 8. In relation to migrant workers, the ability to achieve these milestones hinges upon them reaching the workplace without the invisible ‘chains’ of modern day slavery that arise from unethical recruitment.

This will happen only through 1) better government licensing and enforcement to prosecute criminality across jurisdictions, and 2) a commitment from businesses to procure recruitment services only from recruiters with a proven commitment to ethical practice, in order to increase their market share and incentivize the transformative change to an ‘employer pays’ business model, globally.

Author: Lara White is the Senior Labour Mobility Specialist at the International Organization for Migration

Image: A Chinese immigrant looks on as police officers conduct a check at the Shen Wu textile factory in Prato December 9, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

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