In Search of Decent Work and Better Livelihoods

TEXT: Maria Gallotti, Eliza Marks , Régis Blanc - 28. September 2020

Migrant workers significantly impact the social and economic well-being of their countries of origin, transit, and destination. At the same time, evidence shows that migrant workers face some of the most serious decent work deficits exploitation and abuse – in particular at the recruitment stage. This is the consequence of how recruitment is organized, regulated, and monitored. No single actor and/or country can address existing challenges in isolation. Well institutionalized and executed fair recruitment prevents not just abusive and fraudulent practices, it also reduces the cost of labor migration and enhances development gains.

Why we should care: understanding fair recruitment

The human desire to seek decent employment and livelihoods is at the core of the migration-development nexus. According to ILO data, out of the 258 international migrants estimated globally, 234 million are migrants of working age (15 and older) and 164 million migrant workers

©                                                                                                   Figure 1. Global estimates of the stock of international migrants and migrant workers. (c) Data and image: International Labor Organization (2017)
Figure 1. Global estimates of the stock of international migrants and migrant workers. © Figure 1. Global estimates of the stock of international migrants and migrant workers. (c) Data and image: International Labor Organization (2017)

In a highly globalized economy, workers are increasingly looking for job opportunities beyond their home country. This has also given rise to a growing number of unscrupulous employment agencies, informal labor intermediaries, and other operators, often acting outside the legal and regulatory framework. The practice has exposed migrant workers to a litany of exploitation and abuse – failure to disclose relevant information; restriction of freedom of movement; retention of identity documents to control jobseekers; physical and sexual violence; recruitment below working age; and recruitment of workers into hazardous and unsafe work.

There is no internationally agreed definition of the term ‘fair recruitment’. In general terms, it may mean recruitment carried out within the law, in line with international labor standards and with respect for human rights. It is also commonly referred to as ‘ethical recruitment’ or ‘responsible recruitment’. In 2016, governments, workers’ and employers’ representatives at the ILO developed and agreed to General Principles and Operational Guidelines for Fair Recruitment. In 2018, an internationally agreed ‘Definition of recruitment fees and costs’ was adopted, following a Tripartite Meeting of Experts.

Ensuring fair recruitment for migrant workers is of particular concern. Millions of workers leave their country every year in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. According to ILO estimates from 2017, migrant workers worldwide constitute 4.7 percent of all workers globally. 58.4 million, or 41.6% of them are women.

© Data and image - ILO 2017
Figure 2.  Global distribution of migrant workers by sex. © Data and image - ILO 2017

Evidence shows that malpractices at the recruitment stage of migration can lead to enhanced exposure to vulnerabilities and abuses, including forced labor, at the destination. This has important repercussions on the socioeconomic outcomes and gains of migration for both migrants and their communities of origin and destination. Results of recent national surveys on recruitment costs for workers, conducted by the ILO in many countries, suggests workers can pay on average up to the equivalent of 19 work months of salary for recruitment in some countries

Exploitation and abuse of migrant workers clearly can turn migration from a positive experience into one of human rights violations. Women, and in particular migrant women, are at a disproportionate risk of facing abuses in recruitment and placement, whether it be in the country of origin, transit, or destination.

What is alarming is the nature of the recruitment landscape is increasingly getting very complex, involving a variety of different actors, public and private, and sometimes dominated by a myriad of informal labor intermediaries and by unregulated, fraudulent practices which heighten the risk of workers being abused and distort the efficiency of labor markets. It is estimated that migrant workers pay between 5 and 10 billion dollars in illegal recruitment fees every year and that forced labor generates 150 billion dollars of illicit profits annually.

Turning migration into a more positive experience: the role of collective action

Not everything is doom and gloom: despite the current difficult circumstances, there are positive developments and concrete gains. Over the last few years, a variety of actors, both public and private have made significant progress across the world. Improvements related to a variety of different areas, from relevant legislative and regulatory frameworks to the adoption of specific policies and initiatives by workers’ and employers’ organizations, international organizations, and the private sector.

The United Kingdom’s Gangmasters and Labor Abuse Authority (GLAA), for example, has a licensing system based on ILO standards. In the context of COVID-19, GLAA issued a brief on Temporary Licensing with many relevant provisions aimed at mitigating the effects of the pandemic on labor supply to critical food supply sectors, including introducing a 3-month temporary license to facilitate the recruitment of workers into food production.

Government institutions are not the only ones initiating improvements. In the last decade, the private sector – including Private Employment Agencies and their associations, buyers and brands, and trade unions and workers’ organizations – have actively promoted the principle of “no-fee charging” of recruited workers. This is primarily in response to global and local calls for action against debt bondage, human trafficking, and forced labor.

The ‘employer pays principle’, called for by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, asserts that: ‘No worker should pay for a job. The costs of recruitment should be borne not by the worker but by the employer’. The World Employment Confederation (WEC), actively engaged in the promotion of the ‘employer pays principle’, also endorses Convention No. 181 and encourages members to lobby for its ratification and implementation in their respective countries. The WEC has adopted a Code of Conduct in 2006, which promotes ‘Respect for free-of-charge provision of services to jobseekers’.  WEC has set up a dedicated COVID-19 webpage and is collecting information on its members’ initiatives in response to COVID-19 through an online platform. WEC regularly reports on the impact of COVID-19 on the agency work sector.

Trade unions have also joined forces in denouncing unethical practices in recruitment, in particular, on exacting high levels of recruitment fees and related costs. Promoting a “zero placement fee policy”, the position of trade unions, in particular Public Services International, against worker-paid recruitment fees is premised on the key principle that workers should not pay to obtain decent work, whether in their home country or a foreign country.

As part of the ILO’s Fair Recruitment Initiative, the International Trade Union Confederation has launched an online platform to advise hired workers on the recruitment process, including recruitment fees and costs. The Recruitment Advisor asks inquiring workers registered with their platform to answer a specific survey on employment agencies, with a detailed listing of recruitment fees and questions on pre-departure orientation, the employment contract, working, and living conditions in the country of destination, and return. The listing of recruitment fees paid indicates the key cost components of a schedule of recruitment fees and related costs in labor migration.

All the above are examples of what the different actors are doing and can do to promote and implement fair recruitment in line with ILO principles and guidelines. The main lesson is that collective, multi-stakeholder initiatives at all levels needs to be promoted.

For more long-term impacts, at scale

More sustainable and scalable impacts in orderly, safe, regular, and responsible migration and mobility of people require facilitating fair recruitment and investing in skills development and promoting mutual recognition of skills and skills matching. This also means recognizing, first, that many migrant workers are concentrated in specific economic sectors, such as domestic work, manufacturing, construction, and agriculture. Second, addressing the challenge in a sustainable and large-scale way calls for approaching it in a holistic way – from policy, business, and awareness angles (recognizing one’s rights, social awareness).

The private sector has been proactively promoting the ‘employer pays principle’ and supportive of the ILO Fair Recruitment Initiative, in recognition of the important negative impact abusive recruitment has not only on workers’ rights but also on employers’ legal and reputational risk and economic performance. The global comparative analysis on the definition of fees and costs, conducted by the ILO in preparation of the 2016 Tripartite Meeting of Experts, suggests that the private sector has been at the forefront of adopting progressive provisions on the prohibition of fee-charging.

Similarly, employers’ growing adoption of ethical codes of conduct and due diligence tools are a sign of the evolution of employers’ and agencies’ engagement in this area. As part of the Fair Recruitment Initiative, the ILO is supporting the ILO Global Business Network on Forced Labor in identifying and addressing recruitment-related challenges. As part of this work, for example, the network has begun developing a due diligence tool for small to medium enterprises on fair recruitment as well a policy brief to support business and their representative organizations to engage with the government on forced labor and fair recruitment.

Whether the impact of migration is positive or negative for individuals, communities, and societies at large, and therefore stimulates or retards the achievement of development objectives depends – to a large extent – on the adequacy and effectiveness of existing policy instruments and to the level of international coordination around their adoption and implementation. Migration is a matter that pertains to the world of work and should be addressed as such.

The ILO works with governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations to improve labor migration policies that can achieve more equitable development with a focus on the needs of working men and women who generate the benefits towards development and who support their families and communities in countries of origin and destination. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development clearly highlights the strong link between decent work and migration. Sustainable Development Goal 8 (on promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all) contains target 8.8 on protecting labor rights for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants.


Maria Gallotti is Chief Technical Advisor of the REFRAME Project, Eliza Marks is Project Technical Officer at the Labour Migration Branch, International Labour Organization. Régis Blanc is Migration Advisor at Helvetas.

This article appeared in the September 2020 issue of Helvetas Mosaic. Subscribe to never miss an issue.

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