Breaking the link between exploitative recruitment and modern slavery

“I bought you…”

By Roel Nieuwenkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct (@nieuwenkamp_csr)

Ahmed, from India, paid over 1,300 USD to a recruiter to accept a position as a driver in Saudi Arabia. However, upon arrival his employer confiscated his passport and refused to pay him although Ahmed worked 12 to 14 hour days. Benny, from the Philippines, invested over 2,000 USD in recruitment fees in exchange for the promise of a well-paid factory job in Taiwan. Upon arrival Benny’s wages were half of what was originally promised to him and after three years of working 12 to 17 hour days he barely managed to save enough to pay off his initial investment, returning home with no savings. These men’s stories are not unique. A quick scan of the website of Verité, an organization committed to promoting fair labour standards and combating exploitative recruitment practices, reveals many shocking histories of migrant workers who have been subject to abuse and fraud.

Exploitative recruitment of migrant workers often results in situations of de facto modern slavery. Recruitment can involve up to seven different middle men all charging a fee which means workers incur debts in the thousands of dollars before they even take up employment. Even in situations where employment is provided as promised, these upfront debts can mean that any wages a worker manages to save simply go back to paying off their debt to the recruiter.

Issues around recruitment of migrant workers have received particular attention in the context of the Gulf countries. In this region use of the Kafala system, a sponsorship-based employment system for migrant workers, is common. Under the Kafala system migrant worker’s legal residency is tied to their employer, giving employers power over working conditions and whether workers can change jobs, quit jobs, or leave the country. This system paired with exploitative recruitment practices leads to situations where workers, thousands of miles from home and severely indebted, are at the mercy of their employers.

However de facto modern slavery is by no means an issue limited to the Gulf region. Recent research produced by Verisk Maplecroft found that almost 60 percent of countries are at high risk of using slave labour.


Source: Modern Slavery Index, Verisk Maplecroft

In previous articles, I have highlighted some of regulatory approaches that nations are taking to combat modern slavery at home and throughout global supply chains, including through the UK Modern Slavery Act, trade regulations in the US prohibiting imports made with forced labour, and more generally regulations promoting increased due diligence and reporting across global supply chains to promote responsible business conduct including the EU Directive on non-financial disclosure. Additionally, earlier this year an executive order was a finalised by the Obama administration which prohibits companies from receiving US federal contracts if they recently violated labour laws. This regulation has provided even more impetus to companies to ensure that they are not linked to exploitative labour practices.

In addition, tools and standards are also being developed to target the issue of exploitative recruitment practices specifically. For example the Dhaka Principles for Migration With Dignity were launched in 2012 and provide a set of human rights based principles to enhance respect for the rights of migrant workers from the point of recruitment, during employment and through to further employment or safe return. The principles align with the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights and thus also with the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Verité has developed a Fair Hiring Toolkit which provides targeted guidance around recruitment issues for various actors along the supply chain including for brands, suppliers, governments, advocates, auditors, and investors. This tool kit includes a list of red flags with regard to recruiter-induced hiring traps. For example one red flag is long ‘’supply chains’’ between the worker and employer in terms of intermediaries used in the hiring process and degrees of separation such as language barriers, cultural and social differences, and geographical distances.

Brands are also taking initiative to combat exploitative recruitment processes. Earlier this year five of the world’s largest multinationals, the Coca-Cola Company, HP Inc., Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IKEA and Unilever, launched the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment. This initiative focuses on promoting ethical recruitment, specifically through recognizing the employer pays principle. Under the employer pays principle, workers are never responsible for their own recruitment fees.

According to the Ethical Trading Initiative 71% of companies suspect the presence of modern slavery in their supply chains. Thus it is important to promote human rights due diligence that addresses recruitment issues throughout supply chains. In this regard the OECD has developed detailed guidance on carrying out supply chain due diligence in several sectors based off of the general principles of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. For example the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas, the global standard on mineral supply chain responsibility, provides a 5 step framework for due diligence to manage risks in supply chains of minerals including forced labour in the context of artisanal mining. This Guidance is now the leading standard for avoiding child and forced labour in mineral supply chains and has been integrated as an operating requirement in the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi.

The FAO and OECD recently jointly developed a Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Agricultural Supply Chains which also provides due diligence recommendations to manage risks related to forced labour in high risk agriculture sectors including palm oil and cocoa. Such approaches could be applied in the context of the Thai shrimping industry as well. Additionally, the OECD is also developing a Due Diligence Guidance on Responsible Garment and Footwear Supply Chains, which provides specific recommendations for addressing risks of forced labour. This Guidance will be launched later this year and will be relevant to migrant workers in textiles factories.

Resources to help businesses identify responsible recruitment agencies are also needed. This has been one of the objectives behind the International Recruitment Integrity System (IRIS) an initiative of the International Organization for Migration. As part of its principle activities IRIS is planning to develop an accreditation framework under which members can be recognized as fair recruiters. This will be based, among other criteria, on the fact that no fee is charged to job seekers, worker’s passports of identity documents are not retained and there is transparency in labour supply chains.

A strong relationship exists between exploitative recruitment practices and forced labour. Breaking this link through promoting ethical recruitment will be very important given the vast scope of the issue as well as increasing regulation seeking to prevent these practices.  The initiatives discussed in this article provide promising ways forward. In order to effectively eradicate abusive recruitment practices companies should engage in supply chain due diligence processes which take into account these risks. Commitments to the ‘’employer pays’’ principle must be scaled up. Companies faced with significant risks with regard to these issues should follow the recommendations of the Leadership group for Responsible Recruitment and use the resources being developed through the IRIS initiative.

Useful links

OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises

OECD CleanGovBiz initiative

Roel Nieuwenkamp maintains a blog where all of his articles are archived. Please visit


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