Today, businesses, trade associations and organisations from around the world are coming together in Singapore for the 2018 Global Forum on Responsible Recruitment and Employment. They will discuss the importance of responsible recruitment of migrant workers, including measures which protect those workers from vulnerability to slavery and exploitation.

Many methods to tackle modern slavery - such as auditing, ‘spotting the signs’ awareness-raising and dissemination of helplines - are useful interventions after initial exploitation has occurred so that victims can be identified and supported. But to start reducing the number of victims, intervention must begin earlier in the process and root causes must be addressed. Ensuring responsible recruitment practices does precisely this, protecting migrant workers before they leave their country of origin so that they are less vulnerable at their destination. In particular, eradicating recruitment fees for migrant workers is a core part of protecting the global workforce from slavery.

 Why recruitment fees matter in the fight against slavery

Migrant workers frequently use recruitment agencies or brokers to find placements due to the complex nature of visa procedures and lack of familiarity with, or connection to, the destination country. It is very common that part of this service includes the payment of fees or costs in return for the work placement. Fees vary in terms of what they may cover, including a charge simply for the recruitment itself, for medical checks, trainings, visas, travel and others. Migrant workers frequently have to take out loans in order to pay them, with interest rates as high as 80% annually. The UNODC states that “in reality, workers often do not pay the real price of the services provided...and the recruitment fees can be extortionately high.” For example, the non-profit organisation Verite found that workers from Latin America and Asia were charged between $3,000 and $27,000 to secure visas and jobs on farms in the USA, with some reporting signing over the deeds to their own land in order to obtain the loans and thenlosing their land when they could not make repayments because their wages were lower than those promised by the recruiters.

This is problematic for two reasons. First, there is a basic ethical consideration: you and I would not expect to pay upfront - and heavily become indebted - for a job, so why should it be normalised for other people to do so? Workers trying to pay off these debts are likely to be sending a significant proportion of their pay back to the country in which the loan originates, or having their wages docked to do the same, leaving them impoverished. Surely this is not how we want the people who make the goods we use ourselves to be treated?

Second, these debts leave migrant workers vulnerable to modern slavery. Recruitment fees can lead to debt bondage, whereby somebody is working for little to no pay until the debt is repaid and is unable to leave the employment situation due to that debt, often compounded by potentially coercive and threatening behaviour by those to whom the loan is owed.

Government and corporate action is needed

This issue has rightly been recognised by the International Labour Organisation which includes anti-recruitment fee clauses in its Private Employment Agencies Convention 181, stating that such agencies should not, directly or indirectly, charge fees to workers, and additionally in the Protocol to Forced Labour Convention 29 which calls for measures to protect migrant workers from abusive recruitment practices. In the UK, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority adheres to these aspirational standards by including within its licensing standards a prohibition on recruitment fees. Despite this, recruitment fees remain endemic in supply chains and I am pleased to see today’s Forum taking up this issue to try to change that.

There are a number of measures which must be discussed and taken forward. For governments, they should have regard to the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights which state that governments have a duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including businesses. The prohibition of recruitment fees, and working with other countries to ensure fair recruitment pathways, should become a priority policy for governments around the globe. For businesses, there are a number of actions which need to be taken. These include ensuring social audits ask workers about recruitment fees paid; reimbursing the costs of recruiting migrant workers; explicitly prohibiting labour providers from charging fees; checking with migrant workers on arrival that they have not been charged; and providing confidential processes for reporting instances of fee payment in order that they can be remediated.

Recruitment fees pose a risk to businesses

All of these measures have costs attached for businesses at the top of supply chains. In terms of a business case for taking these steps, there are two considerations. Firstly, the quality of the labour force is likely to improve. The IHRB suggests that responsibly recruited workers will have higher productivity rates as they will have been selected on merit and skill, rather than ability to pay. Additionally, they posit that retention will be improved, with workers less likely to abscond.

Aside from these benefits, there are risks associated with irresponsible recruitment which should incentivise businesses to act. Namely, awareness of modern slavery is growing globally at every level. Legislatively, increasing numbers of countries are passing or drafting anti-slavery laws which include requirements of businesses. This means the potential for litigation against companies is increasing. Many campaigns are engaging consumers with the issue, making it likely that reputationally damaging stories will harm the bottom line if public-facing brands are exposed. Additionally, for companies which only work with other businesses or governments, those contracting parties are highly unlikely to wish to engage a company with a slavery risk attached to it. Finally, investors are becoming increasingly aware of this issue and are looking to businesses to prove they have good governance processes in place to tackle it.

The Institute for Human Rights and Business is doing a lot of good work to further this agenda, including by convening the Leadership Group on Responsible Recruitment which aims to totally eradicate recruitment fees in the future. I commend the businesses and organisations which are participating in this group and hope to see more join these efforts.

Individual companies are taking action, including Apple Inc which as a zero recruitment fee policy and has required suppliers to reimburse any recruitment fees. Apple claims that, since the start of the programme, $28.4 million has been repaid to over 34,000 workers. Patagonia, HP Inc and  NXP Semiconductors also all have such policies in place. Actions like these show an intelligent understanding of how exploitation occurs and a sincere commitment to tackling it.

Slave labour should not exist in the 21st century. For those of us fortunate enough not to be vulnerable to such working conditions, it must be a moral imperative to break the cycle. Eradicating recruitment fees is one crucial action all businesses and governments must take if we are to succeed in this fight and end this inhumane abuse of men, women and children around the world.