The ILO estimates that globally there are currently around 21 million men, women and children in situations of forced labour, trafficking, and modern slavery. Almost no industry sector is exempt and forced labour can be found in all locations – generating around $150 billion in profits annually.
Modern slavery manifests itself in various ways, but usually comes down to one simple thing –exploiting the situation of a vulnerable person. For many workers, this vulnerability is caused through lack of income, lack of decent life options, and often lack of access to accurate information. When others take advantage of this deficit, workers can find themselves in situations of forced labour.
We see this so clearly in the case of migrant workers. Labour brokers and recruitment agents are able to act as gatekeepers to opportunities, contacts, and information. Over the last 20 years, this has led to a situation where high demand and low supply of jobs at home or abroad means workers face situations where they are expected to pay for access to job opportunities. This payment gets dressed up in different ways, under the catch-all title of “recruitment fees”, but it boils down to a payment to secure work – we might even call it a bribe.
A whole system has evolved around this practice, with recruitment agents and labour brokers placing large financial burdens on workers whilst the companies who benefit from a free supply of labour to work at their factories, farms, building sites, shops, and hotels turn a blind eye. So endemic is the practice that it has become normalised to the point that many potential migrants are suspicious if a free recruitment option is available.
These recruitment fees are not only exploitative in themselves, the financial burden they place on workers can leave them in situations of debt bondage and vulnerable to further exploitation.
Increased legislation, media scrutiny, and investor and customer pressure now sees many businesses seeking to combat exploitation of the workforces providing goods or services anywhere in their supply chains. It is vital that company due diligence extends to how workers were recruited and takes action to prevent this systemic abuse of vulnerability.
A handful of far-sighted companies have already embarked on this journey, but it remains at the level of isolated pockets of good practice. To achieve the scale necessary to properly tackle the scourge of debt bondage and forced labour in the global economy, we need responsible business to step up and take a collective stand on modern slavery, calling on both their own suppliers and relevant governments to ban recruitment fees paid by workers and shift to an ‘Employer Pays’ model.
The Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, convened by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), brings together global brands with a bold vision to eradicate worker-paid recruitment fees within a decade. IKEA, the Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, HP Inc., Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Marks and Spencer, and Walmart have joined forces with expert organisations Verité, the International Organization for Migration, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, and IHRB to lead action on three fronts:
- create demand for responsible recruitment labour
- increase supply of ethically sourced labour
- advocate for improved protection for migrant workers
This week, IHRB and the Leadership Group have launched the Responsible Recruitment Gateway at www.employerpays.org, offering information and resources to businesses to help companies move towards ensuring ethical recruitment in their supply chains. The Gateway provides tools and guidance to challenge flawed recruitment practices and establish a new business model for recruiting workers free of exploitation.
Changing the way that workers are recruited is a key step in preventing forced labour and modern slavery. After all, if you or I would not pay to get a job, would we expect those who can least afford it do so?
If you wish to post relevant information on the Responsible Recruitment Gateway, or find out more about the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, please contact IHRB’s Migrant Workers Programme Manager firstname.lastname@example.org.