If a strong foundation of trust among diverse stakeholders is established in a complex system, how can this be built on to create lasting, effective change? In the final blog of a three-part series, Forum’s Senior Strategist LiLin Loh explores possible pathways to an effective changemaking system in responsible recruitment, and opportunities for value chain actors to act in transformative ways.

When migrant workers in global supply chains are recruited irresponsibly, they become highly vulnerable to precarious employment and abusive working conditions. Many efforts have been taken to tackle this problem, including the introduction of modern slavery laws and due diligence legislation, soft law standards (like the Employer Pays Principle), corporate due diligence processes, alternative recruitment models and various technological interventions such as risk assessment platforms.

Yet, in the Malaysian context, these efforts are yet to disrupt enough of—or the right parts of—the recruitment system to shift norms and/ or incentive structures or behaviours that keep unethical recruitment deeply entrenched.

Forum for the Future's Shaping the Future of Responsible Recruitment in Malaysia programme aims to generate a systemic understanding of the deep-set barriers to eradicating unethical recruitment, and to identify opportunities to overcome them in a way that transforms the system, and for the long-term.

Achieving these aims requires engaging those actors in the system with the closest relationships to migrant workers. As such, the programme convened a unique cohort of stakeholders in Malaysia—employers, recruitment agents (Malaysia and Nepal-based), civil society organisations, worker representative organisations and 'solutioning actors' (NGOs, consultancies and other organisations who design and provide responsible recruitment services and tools)—to undertake a system-thinking, futures-led process to achieve those ends.

Principles that underpin the design of new responsible recruitment interventions

Throughout our multi-stakeholder discussions, we fostered a collective understanding of key principles that were critical in creating systemic change. This led to the identification of four foundational principles by the cohort that they deemed essential for designing truly transformative responsible recruitment interventions:

  1. Scalability: Interventions must possess the capacity to scale across sectors, value chains and stakeholders. This enables interventions to reach a wider audience and create meaningful impact that can be expanded across the recruitment ecosystem.
  2. Inclusivity and equity: This entails ensuring fairness throughout the design and implementation phases of interventions. Equity is not only viewed as an outcome for migrant workers and all actors involved in ensuring responsible recruitment, but also considered in the process of designing the intervention. It requires careful deliberation in considering who gets to participate in the design of the tools and implementation.
  3. Accountability and transparency: Interventions should facilitate opportunities for continuous learning and reflection, promoting a culture of accountability across the recruitment ecosystem. By enhancing transparency, interventions must aim to build trust and empower stakeholders to take ownership of their roles in ensuring responsible recruitment practices.
  4. Additionality: Interventions must maximise their value by complementing existing efforts and the work of other organisations and networks, in ways that create synergies and amplify their collective impact. This will enable the new intervention to interact with existing interventions and operate as an effective, coordinated system of interventions.

During the Innovation Garages, where we brought together the entire cohort to examine existing interventions, the cohort tested the effectiveness of existing interventions by assessing how they fared against these four principles.

For instance, a plethora of mobile applications aimed at supporting worker rights’ training have been introduced in the market; however, it remains unclear the extent to which the end users, i.e. migrant workers, have been engaged in the design of the apps. By dissecting various interventions, the participants identified how adherence to these principles could enhance their effectiveness and promote transformative change. 

Designing for change: Areas for evolving responsible recruitment responses

After undertaking a system mapping exercise and a deep dive into the existing responsible recruitment interventions, our cohort engaged in an ideation exercise to imagine where different approaches could be taken to embed responsible recruitment norms and practices in Malaysia. The collaborative process of critical examination and reflection supported our journey towards designing more impactful and transformative interventions, rooted in the shared principles of scalability, inclusivity, accountability, and additionality.

With these principles at the core of the ideation process, the cohort came up with four possible opportunities that offer transformative potential in shifting the responsible recruitment system:

  1. Recruiter-Civil Society Platform that builds trust among recruitment agents and civil society organisations and creates opportunities for dialogue to understand migrant worker challenges, fostering collective solutioning, and enabling their joint agency in advocating for systemic change.
  2. An Employers’ Transition Playbook that raises awareness and provides guidance through multiple formats for Malaysian employers who want to adopt responsible recruitment practices; it is informed by bottom-up, collaborative dialogue between employers, workers, recruiters and civil society organisations.
  3. Futures-Sensing and Resilience-Building Network comprising representatives from across the recruitment system who regularly scan the landscape and make sense of trends and signals of change, to inform how the responsible recruitment system can adapt to maintain its effectiveness in protecting workers in the context of landscape changes.
  4. New Recruiter Models that tap the potential of recruitment agents to protect and promote respect for migrant workers’ rights across their whole employment journey, from the point of recruitment to repatriation. With such models, recruitment agents would not only pay attention to zero recruitment fees norms but also take on the responsibility of protecting migrant workers’ well-being and dignity.

One of the potential opportunities that participants came up with together: a playbook for employers transitioning into responsible recruitment practices. Visual recording by Tak-Tik Visual Solutions.

These opportunity areas capture and respond to some of the deeper challenges and blind spots in the system that existing interventions fail to tackle. For instance, the Recruiter-Civil Society Platform could yield a unique collaboration between two critical actors in the Malaysian recruitment system that have often been at odds with one another and surface avenues where their individual efforts could be combined for deeper impact.

Similarly, the Futures-Sensing and Resilience-Building Network addresses a critical blind spot in the system as current interventions are not being designed to monitor and adapt to the effects of a changing climate on recruitment processes. This network is intended to build the capacity of the system to be adaptive, so that it doesn’t fail workers when circumstances change.

A vision of what a collaborative platform between recruiters and civil society could look like, acknowledging challenges common to all value chains such as power dynamics. Visual recording by Tak-Tik Visual Solutions.

What’s next? Empowering the act of creation

With a strong foundation of relationships set and ideas bubbling, the cohort is keen to move to a focused innovation process to build out the opportunity areas and accompanying ideas. The next course of action is to progress these ideas to prototypes that can be validated with external stakeholders, exercising the cohort’s capacity to move from vision to action in a holistic manner.

These opportunity areas and ideas should not be distant dreams—we hope to build wider communities around the ideals and principles captured in them, to help the cohort realise their full expression and impact.

To build ownership of these prototypes, we will be moving beyond involving participants in their design and inviting participants to lead some of these complex innovation processes. Building the capacity of solutioning actors (who form the connective tissue between all stakeholders) to engage with employers, recruiters, civil society and workers in ways that enhance collective agency is another lever that is worth pulling.

We ask that interested actors working towards responsible recruitment come along this process and develop the leadership that is essential to a resilient and effective system of change agents.

This blog is the last in a three-part series on our work on modern slavery and our programme, Shaping the Future of Responsible Recruitment, Purpose of Business - Reconfiguring Value Chains work, which addresses the deep relational shifts required for just and regenerative value chains. Blogs 1 and 2 highlight the process we applied to foster the collaborative relationships between our participants. In this blog, we share the outputs of the cohort's work in ideating opportunity areas to evolve responsible recruitment interventions such that they achieve more systemic impacts.

Read the first two blogs here:

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