Human rights and trade | Opinion

Recruitment incentives continue to drive modern slavery

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Migrant workers the backbone of many sectors

The point of recruitment is a recognised pinch point for modern slavery, but entrenched interests mean that solutions have to work hard to achieve impactful change

Illicit revenues from forced labour stand at $150 billion a year, the Consumer Goods Forum estimates – so there is a lot of incentive for such practices to continue. And one of the biggest drivers of modern slavery continuing to exist in global supply chains is unethical and exploitative recruitment practices.

The recruitment process can often involve a number of different “middle men” all charging a fee, meaning workers have to take on debt, perhaps into the thousands of dollars, before they even start employment.

In addition, workers can be tied into contracts that force them to continue paying a percentage of their income every month. Or, the promised jobs turn out different from what was expected in terms of location, salary and working hours. On top of this, migrant workers are commonly asked to hand over their passports and visas when starting work, making it very difficult to leave.

Stakeholder commitment

Unsurprisingly, the need for ethical and responsible recruitment is increasingly acknowledged by business. But it’s not an easy nut to crack. Forced labour is a cultural, widespread issue with deep roots across the global supply chain that “cannot be met with the desire to effect change on just one front, it must be a mutual commitment from all stakeholders,” according to Jan Saumweber, senior vice president for responsible sourcing at Walmart.

Rather than questioning why companies are failing to do more to address complex social challenges in supply chains, the focus should be on what organisations, including governments and NGOs, can collectively do to tackle the issue in partnership.

Backed by companies including Walmart, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Vinci, Marks & Spencer and Ikea, and hosted by the Institute for Human Rights and Business, the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment is one such collaboration. It has a specific goal: to completely eradicate fees charged to workers to secure employment.

Employer pays

The group is gaining traction by creating more demand for responsible recruitment, raising awareness of the positive benefits on offer to those adopting ethical practices. It is pushing its employer pays principle through specific recruitment corridors, primarily in southeast Asia, bringing brands, suppliers and recruitment agencies together to collaborate on the point of recruitment labour challenges.

The Responsible Business Alliance, the Seafood Task Force, Issara Institute and the Consumer Goods Forum also offer platforms for collective action in bringing about change to the recruitment industry with specific work streams looking at forced labour.

Meanwhile, the non-profit Verité has developed a Fair Hiring Toolkit which offers guidance on recruitment issues for the various actors along the supply chain.

There are few examples of companies taking a stand to eradicate poor recruitment practices in their supply chains. To bring about much-needed change to a service beset by unethical business practice – yet one that many of the world’s most vulnerable workers have come to so heavily rely upon – will require companies, governments and NGOs leveraging one another’s respective strengths to have a lasting impact.

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