First published: Institute for Human Rights and Business, in commentary titled Reflections from the 2018 Global Forum on Responsible Recruitment.

In the early years of the ethical trade movement, recruitment processes, fees, and other (often hidden) costs that workers bore unduly, were identified as a root cause of abusive working conditions in global supply chains.  The theory of change at the time however focused primarily on correcting issues on the factory floor through codes of conduct, monitoring, and auditing by brands. Although these activities gave nod to the fact that the unethical rot started during recruitment, they did little to address the vulnerability and disempowerment that became entrenched at that stage.  So, the fact that, twenty years on, a whole two days were dedicated to bringing together actors from across global value chains to give highly pertinent attention to responsible recruitment, is a clear and very welcome signal of progress. 

On Day 1 of the Forum, Anne Jacobs of the North-South Initiative, and Bhim Kumar Newar, of the Migrant Worker Network, spoke of the systemic, complex and interlinked nature of migrant worker abuse that starts during recruitment. Their mapping of migrant workers’ experiences offered critical insights into where we have to begin to bring about change. One composite example in particular stuck with me: having paid a recruitment fee, if a migrant worker is at risk of failing the health screening in their home country, they will feel compelled to pay a bribe to get the right screening result. When they arrive in the recruiting country and fail their health screening there, they will bribe again. If that fails, they become undocumented and enter into a further spiral of vulnerability. The ‘Employer Pays’ Principle does much to prevent this spiral, but it is important that we push on to find ways to halt the corruption, that like water, will find its way of seeping through the cracks, usually drowning the most disenfranchised individual in the chain. 

It is important that we continue to test our theory of change on addressing migrant workers abuses. One issue which I think calls out for this is in regard to the kind of legislation that we currently believe will induce the necessary systemic transformational shifts. Many at the Global Forum lauded the introduction of disclosure and transparency legislation such as the Modern Slavery Act and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act as significant levers of change. But are we watching closely enough for unintended consequences? What if disclosure regulation means that companies are being legally advised to disclose less, not more, because the law allows them to and, they are told disclosing more than is required creates liability risks that they want to avoid? How are we tracking the way companies are responding internally to such legislation? How do we know if the regulation is catalysing progressive behaviours or regressive ones? So far we know that whilst a few leading companies have substantively met the S.54 requirements of the Modern Slavery Act, the majority continue to perform poorly. According to research done by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, nearly half of the companies have not met even the minimum legal thresholds and the majority of companies do not provide details on the complexity of their supply-chains and risks they have identified with regard to modern slavery.[1]

We are still in an experimental phase of finding ways to rid global supply-chains of exploitative practices that lead to the violation of migrant workers’ rights. Acknowledging this phase means being mindful of testing our hypotheses to see if the intended positive impacts are actually materialising. As we continue to take strides forward in protecting migrant workers, let’s be sure to keep a keen eye - to paraphrase Marika McCauley-Sine from Mars - on whether our efforts are “improving peoples’ lives meaningfully.”

First published: Institute for Human Rights and Business

[1]BHRRC, ‘First Year of FTSE 100 Reports under the UK Modern Slavery Act: Towards Elimination?’ (17 October 2017). This report compared the data collected in 2017 with data published in the BHRRC’s 2016 report ‘FTSE 100 At the Starting Line: An analysis of company statements under the UK Modern Slavery Act’. (26 October 2016). The assessment methodology is detailed here.