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Until governments that import low-cost migrant labour take steps to ensure that employers pay the full costs of worker recruitment then it’s migrant workers who will pay
James Lynch is co-founding director of FairSquare, a human rights organisation that led the Five Corridors Project on fair recruitment
In June every year, labour and interior ministers around the world shift slightly awkwardly in their seats.
The unease is typically more pronounced in developing countries in the global south, for whom the annual release of US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report rankings can have political and financial consequences.
A Tier 1 ranking serves as the gold standard, whereas countries who find themselves in Tier 3 are on the naughty step.
The U.S.’s assumption of the role as global policeman of the modern anti-slavery movement has not been without controversy, and its ranking system has a hard political edge to it, but the report undoubtedly focuses the minds and shape the policies of many governments.
And yet for all the focus on trafficking since the turn of the century and the near universal ratification of the Palermo Protocol, wherein states resolve to effectively outlaw “trafficking in persons”, states have paid far less attention to serious abuses associated with the global recruitment industry.
This industry exists to furnish countries with labour shortages in low-paid sectors of their economies with workers from abroad, and with migrant workers accounting for nearly 5% of the global workforce it’s very big business.
These labour shortages often arise not from any demographic deficit, but rather the adoption of low-wage business models - cheaper labour from abroad will do low-paid work in sectors like agriculture, construction and domestic care, for less than nationals will accept.
Thus Thailand (an upper-middle income economy) supplies all the labour for the agricultural sector in Israel (a high income economy), and Myanmar (a lower-middle income economy) in turn provides Thailand with upwards of three million low-paid workers.
In these models of temporary or “circular” migration, workers return to their origin countries at the end of their contracts under tied visa regimes.
It’s an economic win for impoverished origin states, who rely on remittances to prop up their economies, and it’s an economic win for the wealthier destination states, who get a cheap, disenfranchised, non-unionised and deportable workforce.
And such is the demand for these relatively well-paid jobs that many migrant workers are actually willing to pay the costs of their own recruitment, even if that means selling the family land or taking our high-interest loans.
The more responsible actors in the private sector have long been alert to the dangers of unethical recruitment and a range of initiatives have sprung up to provide guidance to corporate actors concerned about the impact of unethical recruitment practices on the workers in their supply chains.
But states, which pay very close attention to every detail of their annual TIP report have largely looked the other way on recruitment, which is not measured by any index, despite the obvious links between unfair recruitment and trafficking and forced labour. “Recruitment is their problem, not ours”, say governments in wealthy states, pointing back overseas at unscrupulous agents over whom they have no control.
But new research findings, based on extensive field work in five migration corridors and nine countries over 18 months exposes the falsity of these narratives.
On the basic issue of fees, an ethical recruitment agent in the Philippines perhaps explained it most simply: “It’s no problem if the employer pays, but if they don’t then of course the worker is going to pay.” The recruitment agents certainly aren’t going to pay, since their business model is based on collecting fees.
Until governments that import low-cost migrant labour take steps to ensure that employers pay the full costs of worker recruitment then it’s migrant workers who will pay.
Governments also need to recognise that fair recruitment goes beyond the issues of fees and contract deception.
Even zero-fee recruitment is no guarantee of fair recruitment if it places workers into jobs and structures that leave them acutely vulnerable to abuse.
Tied visa systems and discriminatory laws and policies, like those that deny basic labour protection to whole groups of workers, will critically undermine any progress made on worker indebtedness.
Tackling abuses in international recruitment has long been regarded as a complex and intractable problem and this new research is not blind to the challenge and to the need for radical and innovative thinking in origin and destination states alike.
But ultimately it’s political will in powerful destination states, not technical innovations in weaker origin states that holds the key to fair recruitment.
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