Illegal and unethical hiring practices take a number of forms. Resources for Responsible Recruitment uncovers and seeks to address the following problems linked to recruiting migrant workers in global supply chains:
Migrant workers are often charged a recruitment fee by employment agents in order to secure a job. This fee can cover a variety of costs, including travel, passport and visa processing, and medical exams. It can also include unspecified fees and service charges, much of which may go directly to the agent.
When migrant workers are required to pay excessive fees as a condition of obtaining employment, they often go into debt to come up with the money. Sometimes, family members and neighbors invest in the recruitment fee as well. Failure to repay can have severe personal and social consequences, particularly if the money is owed to those with connections to criminal elements, or if family assets have been leveraged as collateral. The existence of the debt—and the worker’s urgent need to repay it— mean that the worker can more easily be manipulated by the employer to accept lower wages than were promised, poor working conditions, excessive work hours, or similar abusive practices. Debt-burdened workers are also much more vulnerable to threats of deportation—and consequent loss of their earning potential – than workers with no debt obligations. In this way, debt leads to human trafficking and debt bondage, which the ILO classifies as a form of forced labor, or modern day slavery.
Some countries place limits on the level of fees that can be charged by recruitment agents, while other countries have placed a prohibition on such fees. The International Labor Organization’s Convention 181 on Private Employment Agencies states that recruiters should not charge any fees to workers. The International Confederation of Private Employment Agencies (Ciett) – the global association that represents the industry – similarly prohibits fee charging in its code of conduct for members.
While normative prohibitions and limits on fee charging for recruitment exist, in practice migrant workers are regularly charged fees for job placement, with total amounts often exceeding legal limits and ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.
The retention of worker identity documents, such as passports and work permits, has been identified as a common practice among employers and recruitment agencies in many countries and sectors around the world. It represents an infringement of international human rights and, in many jurisdictions, is a violation of national law. It has been identified by the International Labor Organization (ILO) as an indicator of vulnerability to forced labor.
The retention – or confiscation – of workers’ identity documents typically affects international migrants, but can also involve those that cross internal borders. It can result in restrictions on workers’ freedom of movement, and be used as a means to bind them to a particular job or employer, forcing them to do work that they may not have consented to for fear of losing their documents permanently. The practice can exacerbate migrants’ vulnerability to other forms of abuse and prevent them from exercising their fundamental rights and freedoms in the workplace, for example their right to representation and association. In some jurisdictions, migrants may face detention, harassment or even deportation if they fail to produce documentation when asked by authorities. In the worst case scenario, the retention of documents can be compounded with other factors and result in a situation of forced labor for workers.
Workers who flee exploitative work arrangements without their documents become undocumented workers, without access to protection or services, and in many cases even more vulnerable to abuse.
Migrant workers can be vulnerable to deceptive recruitment and contract substitution. Deceptive recruitment practices have been identified by the International Labor Organization as an indicator of vulnerability to forced labor.
When a recruitment system lacks clear standards for transparency and accountability, risks to workers can arise from differences between the terms of work represented at the point of recruitment and those imposed at the workplace. Because of the lack of effective linkages between home country recruiters, transport firms, host country recruiters, and ultimate employers, it can be hard for workers and governments to hold any one entity accountable for abuses.
Contract substitution occurs when workers agree to one set of payment terms and working conditions, but find themselves presented with substantially different and inferior terms after they have incurred costs and obligations that may limit their freedom to refuse the imposed changes. Workers may find themselves subject to inferior wages, hours, benefits or accommodations, or may face different contract terms regarding deductions, the nature and difficulty of work and contract duration. Punitive contract penalties not disclosed at the time of recruitment might also be added to the contract. Some workers are even forced to sign blank contracts along the recruitment path, or contracts that are in a language that they do not understand.
Lack of Freedom of Movement
Migrant workers face complex and multifaceted barriers to their freedom of movement. Workers who have migrated on temporary visas often have their housing arranged by their recruiter or employer. The terms of their visa may require that they be sponsored by an employer, or work for a particular employer or in a particular sector. Immigration regulations in the host country may require migrants to carry their passport and work permit with them at all times. Migrant workers are sometimes restricted – by their employer or by the terms of their temporary work visa – from leaving the host country, even when on paid leave. These and other issues can have important implications for a worker’s ability to move freely in society, and to come and go from the host country during the term of the employment contract.
- Housing. Where housing has been arranged by the recruiter or employer, migrant workers may live in dormitories surveilled by security guards, or they may be subject to curfews or other requirements about when and under what circumstances they can come and go from their housing. Workers are sometimes locked out of their dormitory after leaving for work in the morning, or locked in their dorms for the night. In some cases, security measures like these are welcome features of housing for migrant workers, while in other cases, the presence of guards or locked doors is used directly or indirectly as a way to threaten workers and limit their freedom.
Another challenge to freedom of movement for migrant workers can come from the physical location of housing. Migrants are sometimes purposely housed in areas that are geographically isolated or rife with crime, rendering it practically impossible for them to go out without the aid of the employer or recruiter.
- Visa Portability. Immigration regulations vary widely in host countries and can have important impacts on freedom of movement for migrant workers. The kafala system found in some countries of the Middle East, for example, requires that migrant workers have an employer-sponsor for the duration of their stay on a temporary work visa. When the worker desires to leave the country, the employer-sponsor must apply for an exit visa on his or her behalf. In the Dominican Republic, temporary migrants must be provided with a temporary worker card, or “carnet”. This carnet restricts them to employment in the sector for which they were admitted, for the authorized period of time and within the authorized locale. The law further stipulates that employers should repatriate workers once their carnets expire, giving employers the authority to deport workers. Such laws create a legal restriction on migrant workers’ freedom of movement, link them to a specific employer, and create an inherent menace of penalty of deportation for leaving their jobs or workplaces.
- Retention of Identity Documents. Many countries require that foreigners carry their passport and work permit with them at all times. When an employer or recruiter retains identity documents in such an environment, the freedom of movement of the worker is severely restricted: In order to move about in society, a worker must risk being stopped and questioned by law enforcement authorities, being charged financial penalties, detained, or – in severe cases – even deported. See Retention of Identity Documents above for more on this issue.
- Return Ticket Home. Workers who migrate with the help of a recruiter are often promised a return ticket home at the end of a time-bound contract. The cost of this ticket is sometimes deducted from a worker’s paycheck. A worker who wishes to end his or her contract prematurely must be able to finance the journey home on his or her own, or even face the loss of money that has been deducted from the paycheck for this purpose. (Note that the withholding of such deductions contravenes international standards and most national laws.) This financial barrier to returning home can act as a binding agent for the worker, making it very difficult to terminate a contract early.
Inadequate Grievance Procedures
The temporary and often tenuous status of migrant workers in a host country, combined with a lack of facility with the host language, can result in hesitancy to voice concerns or grievances. Cultural barriers between workers and supervisors can add a further compounding effect. Migrant workers may simply be unaware of existing channels to submit grievances, or fear of reprisal can prevent them from using existing channels. In some countries, migrant workers are not afforded the right to freedom of association, which closes off a critical avenue for airing grievances and providing protection for whistleblowers.
In the context of a social audit, migrant workers are sometimes coached by managers or supervisors not to report problems or to complain about conditions, with the threat of losing their jobs and work permits. This can send the message to these workers that grievances are not welcome in the workplace.
Robust and open communication between workers and management is essential for promoting trust and understanding in the workplace, enhancing performance, and generating the active participation of the workforce. Such communication is also essential to allow for problems and grievances to be raised, discussed, and resolved. Effective grievance mechanisms can act as an early warning system where the management of migrant workers is concerned. Appropriate channels for raising concerns are one tool for companies to help ensure that migrant workers are not subject to some of the exploitative practices discussed above.
Restrictions on Freedom of Association
The ability to form and join a trade union is a fundamental human right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Labor Organization’s Convention 87. The right of migrant workers to associate is further elaborated in the ILO’s Convention 97, which states that legal protections for migrants to form or join trade unions should be no less favorable than those enjoyed by country nationals.
Yet despite these clear international standards, the right of migrant workers to form and join trade unions is restricted in many countries. This right is also sometimes restricted in free industrial zones, where migrants often work in high concentrations. In other cases, while the right of migrant workers to associate is observed by law, in practice the government places conditions on migrants’ work permits indicating that they may not join associations, or employers include stipulations in employment contracts that forbid workers from forming or joining unions. Such practices have the practical effect of prohibiting migrant workers from joining trade unions.
In still other cases, migrant workers who have joined or attempted to join a trade union, or who have participated in a strike, find they are targeted for reprisal. Such reprisal can take various forms, the most extreme being denunciation and deportation. Workers may also find they have been put on hiring blacklists, unable to find another job in a particular country or sector.