Complex challenges in value chains require more than just piecemeal solutions that address challenges on the surface. In the second blog of a three-part series, Madhu Ardhanari explores how building trust through system change approaches is critical to tackling complex challenges such as responsible recruitment, and what it means to apply such an approach to equally complex contexts with multiple stakeholders. 

Addressing the most pressing challenges of our time requires interventions that are designed to be systemic in practice and impact. Systems approaches invite stakeholders to step back from their day-to-day work to see a challenge from a different lens, such as examining relationships, power dynamics, and underlying mindsets within systems.  

When it comes to the challenge of recruiting migrant workers responsibly, many tools and interventions have been designed by multiple organisations across value chains. Yet, efforts are not adding up, with forced labour in Asia increasing by 2.7 million people between 2017 to 2021 and many groups still calling for greater action 

For destination countries for migrant workers such as Malaysia, where the effectiveness of change-making efforts are often compounded by deep-rooted external factors, system change approaches could be instrumental in creating interventions that transform the entire recruitment system. 

Over 2023, Forum for the Future ran a participatory action inquiry programme, Shaping the Future of Responsible Recruitment in Malaysia. The challenge? To understand how a system change approach could be applied in the context of a deeply entrenched, complex problem. 

The programme brought together a cohort of actors from across the recruitment system—recruitment agencies, employers, civil society organisations and worker representatives—to collectively inquire: where are there barriers to systemically eradicating unethical recruitment practices, and what are the opportunities to overcome them?

What has driven a siloed approach in tackling irresponsible recruitment? 

Despite being in a fairly small ecosystem, actors in Malaysia’s responsible recruitment landscape have traditionally operated in silos, i.e. unsystemically, and have few opportunities to engage meaningfully across stakeholder groups.  

One driver of this is the distrust or unfamiliarity towards other stakeholders’ intentions, as each group tends to approach the same challenge from a different standpoint. For instance, employers and recruitment agencies/ agents, who have the most agency to improve recruitment practices, are often reluctant to share their experiences with applying responsible recruitment tools and services, in fear of scrutiny and legal repercussions. 

Despite playing a critical role in creating a pathway towards system-level change, their reticence prevents deeper insights and action. Investing in the quality of relationships between stakeholder groups can therefore be key in accelerating the uptake of responsible recruitment tools and practices.

Building trust over rushing action 

Bringing about system change with diverse, disparate stakeholders thus requires a relational approach—understanding sources of distrust, fear, reluctance to engage, and finding avenues to overcome these barriers by encouraging actors to come together one step at a time. A critical aspect of this approach is finding ways to create empathy, by creating spaces for actors to engage in deep listening, have openness to other perspectives without judgment, and offer their own experiences as a way of learning. 

The programme first brought together individual stakeholder groups (employers, recruitment agencies, civil society organisations and worker representatives) in caucuses to build trust within groups, then repeating the process between groups by bringing all stakeholder groups together.

Overview of the Shaping the Future of Responsible Recruitment programme, under Forum’s Purpose of BusinessReconfiguring Value Chains work. Graphic by Forum for the Future.

Though many participants started the programme emphasising the need to achieve tangible action quickly, they gradually shifted towards valuing the empathy they were gradually experiencing and the ability to “see the whole system” through each other. As one participant noted, it was the initiative’s lack of agenda in pushing any particular solutions and the openness to reframe challenges from different perspectives that enabled the group to collaborate together. 

“Donors and institutional actors can be very distant from the key challenges, and their funding supports the implementation of predetermined solutions, which may not exactly help address these challenges. Having us begin by examining the challenges together without fixed solutions in mind truly differentiated this programme, and we thought it was a refreshing process.”

— Valentina Lai, Southeast Asia Director, FiftyEight.

One outcome from this was that participants, notably employer groups, shared that they felt less alone by listening to their peers who faced similar challenges, such as conflicting industry definitions of legal recruitment fees. 

“We needed processes that allow all types of actors, such as recruiters, to open up. Through this programme, recruiters have actively reached out to [civil society actors] and shared their frustrations. We now have empathy and a better sense of the governance gaps.”

— Adrian Pereira, Executive Director, North-South Initiative.

A solutions-led, rather than challenge-focused process 

One of the biggest hurdles when convening all participants together was that each stakeholder group held their own strong, deep-set opinions about the most critical barriers, the “right” solutions and who should be designing them. Due to these deep-held assumptions and viewpoints, conversations around challenges could get repetitive in ways that prevented a more fruitful discussion.  

To overcome this challenge and enable constructive dialogue, it was necessary to find routes to enable the group to look for and investigate their underlying biases and assumptions, understand what was driving them, and find ways to spot them. The programme applied an intervention-focused approach, steering the group to look beyond current challenges in the ecosystem and instead examine existing interventions together. 

By getting the group to map out existing interventions/solutions according to the role they played in changing the system, participants managed to articulate the tensions in the system, opportunities for complementarity and collaboration between organisations, and the principles and values underpinning each solution. This also prompted questions on how the ecosystem could act more powerfully as one, instead of as a vast array of disparate initiatives that fail to function as an interconnected ecosystem.

Existing interventions in responsible recruitment, as mapped by participants. Other intervention areas not pictured include Practices and Behaviours, and Regulation and Policy. Graphic by Forum for the Future.

From mapping existing interventions to mapping the future 

With a foundation of relationships built and knowledge of the ecosystem of existing interventions, the group were in a stronger position to dive deeper into understanding what made an intervention truly systemic in nature. 

In a two-day Innovation Garage workshop, some of the organisations volunteered to share their own interventions as case studies for wider discussion with the entire cohort, reflecting openly on their successes and challenges in designing them. The primary aim was to outline the conditions needed to conceptualise and design more impactful interventions for responsible recruitment. In doing so, the group assessed the system change potential of the case studies by asking questions and offering reflections from the perspectives of individual stakeholder groups in the spirit of enhancing the impact of the intervention. 

The process was also designed to nurture a sense of common purpose in the cohort, to create a bolder desired future together. To do so, the group explored drivers of change in the future, such as the climate crisis, automation, war and the restructuring of global supply chains, and then examined whether existing interventions were able to respond to these disruptions.

Sample of a Futures Wheel exercise co-created by participants. Graphic by Forum for the Future.

The climate crisis in particular was identified as a significant blind-spot for a cohort in the social change space, with most participants feeling that it was the driver of change that they were least prepared for. For instance, while it is broadly known that increased heat can affect worker health and safety, participants began exploring other implications such as increased operating costs in temperature sensitive industries such as agriculture in Malaysia. Working together also enabled the group to understand the extent to which current responsible recruitment interventions were future-fit. 

Creating the conditions for systems to change 

With migrant workers likely to experience increasing and new impacts on their well-being and dignity, it is imperative that the responsible recruitment movment is open to new narratives and approaches. Change needs to happen at a systemic level, rather than through incremental improvements. Unlocking collaboration to enable the social elements of a just transition will require attention to the relationships within systems. 

By creating the conditions that enable a diversity of actors to discover and activate their collective change agency, we can create the deep, urgent change needed and change systems, not just specific problems.

This blog is the second in a three-part series on our work on modern slavery and our programme, Shaping the Future of Responsible Recruitment, under Forum’s Purpose of Business - Reconfiguring Value Chains work, which addresses the deep relational shifts required for just and regenerative value chains.

This blog explored how the Forum for the Future team worked with changemakers in the responsible recruitment ecosystem in Malaysia to design a contextually relevant systems change process. Our final blog will outline the potential interventions that the cohort of participants came up with, and how we intend to progress on community building and scoping the collaboration.

Read the first blog, which looked at the challenge of responsible recruitment as a whole.

Interested in collaborating with us? Get in touch with LiLin Loh, Forum's Senior Strategist.