A quick Google search for “ethical recruitment” of migrant workers yields 111,000+ results. Everyone seems to be talking about ethical recruitment, from CEOs at Fortune 500 businesses to UN organisations to nonprofit organisations and platforms. There is a veritable alphabet soup of initiatives, organisations, and actors engaged in promoting ethical recruitment.
But when TERA launched in 2018, we were surprised to find that, as our friends at Migrant Forum in Asia wrote, “There is no official definition of ‘ethical recruitment.” Instead, ethical recruitment is a broad term used to describe many different kinds of interventions.
A response to endemic problems
Ethical recruitment emerged in response to the well-documented challenges in migrant worker recruitment. Workers pay exorbitant fees to seek jobs abroad, often setting them on a path towards debt bondage. Workers can be deceived at nearly every step of the migration process. Local recruiters promise decent conditions and fair pay but workers often end up in situations of forced labour. Many migrants, including those working on high-profile international projects like the Qatar 2022 World Cup, experience severe difficulties abroad affecting their physical health, psychological well-being, and financial stability. All of these challenges begin with a recruitment process where intermediaries have a huge power and information advantage over workers.
A simple idea?
In principle, the idea of ethical recruitment should be simple: ethical recruitment is exploitation-free recruitment.
But digging a bit deeper, we found well over a dozen sets of standards, principles and codes of conduct defining ethical recruitment – or “fair recruitment,” “safe migration,” or any number of related terms. These include:
- Initiatives from UN organisations, such as IOM’s International Recruitment Integrity System (IRIS), ILO’s Fair Recruitment Initiative, and IOM Corporate Responsibility in Eliminating Slavery and Trafficking (CREST);
- Industry-driven codes from groups like the World Employment Confederation (WEC) and the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA);
- Toolkits from civil society and ethical trade consultancies, such as the Verité Fair Hiring Toolkit and the Responsible Recruitment Toolkit.
These excellent resources have advanced better recruitment practices globally and made critical principles like “Employer Pays” popular. Today, most multinational companies have policies on forced labour and supplier codes of conduct that outline minimum recruitment standards.
The flip side, of course, is that these resources have become so abundant – and so varied in their content – that they risk obscuring what “ethical recruitment” really means in practice. Put another way, one company’s “ethical recruitment” might be another company’s exploitation.
One company’s “ethical recruitment” might be another company’s exploitation.
The three planks of ethical recruitment
While TERA was building our unique approach to ethical recruitment, we realised that all of the policies and guidance related to ethical recruitment could be distilled into three broad categories:
- Following the law. This is the most basic part of ethical recruitment: ensuring that worker recruitment complies with the laws and regulations of origin and destination countries.
- Eliminating (or reducing) recruitment fees. The real cost of recruitment to workers is often thousands of dollars. Some forms of ethical recruitment require reducing these fees to the minimum costs allowed by law; others prohibit fees altogether.
- Complying with core worker welfare principles. While the principles themselves may vary, compliance with at least one reputable set of standards is key to making recruitment ethical.
Advancing the field, one tough question at a time
The number of recruitment actors branding themselves as “ethical” is growing. Smart procurement officers, philanthropists and investors can make their dollars go further by asking a few straightforward questions, and in the process, learn exactly what kind of “ethical recruitment” they are getting:
- Clarify the definition of ethical recruitment. Ask recruiters about how (if) they interpret and operationalise the three pillars of ethical recruitment. If they comply with a set of worker welfare principles, clarify which set of principles – and why the recruiter uses them. If they operate in countries where the law falls short of top international standards, understand how recruiters go above and beyond legal compliance.
- Go beyond the “principle”. TERA follows 12 ethical principles, including our commitment to provide workers with clear and transparent employment contracts. Smart funders should ask questions that push beyond jargon-filled principles: for example, how do recruiters ensure workers actually understand the terms and conditions of their work agreements? (In TERA’s case, we achieve this by providing contracts in local languages, providing in-depth pre-departure training, and conducting independent verification.)
- Understand the recruitment model. Does the ethical recruiter directly recruit workers (like TERA) or partner with sub-agents to identify prospective workers? Working with third parties substantially raises the risk of exploitation. Do they vary their “ethical” approach by client. For example, do they charge fees to some workers but not others? Do they follow the same ethical model for all recruitments (like TERA)?
Alex Silberman is the General Manager of The Ethical Recruitment Agency. Based in Washington D.C, he is an expert on migrant worker recruitment, supplier compliance and global migration. He has worked extensively in Afghanistan, India, Qatar, East Africa and elsewhere. Alex’s background is in data analytics and mixed methods research on forced labour and safe migration. Want to get in touch with Alex? Email him at [email protected]