Bottom of the Supply Chain

Have we reached a tipping point in promoting ethical recruitment in global supply chains?

I think it’s pretty safe to say that we have not—but there has been a lot of good work recently among global companies and the private sector on the subject, most of it focused on the recruitment fees charged to workers.

The recent migrant worker policy adopted by Patagonia, the US outdoor clothing company, is a case in point. It explicitly prohibits suppliers from charging fees, expenses or deposits to workers for recruitment or employment services, echoing similar policies adopted by Apple and HP in the electronics industry late last year. In November, the world’s largest private sector network, the International Organization of Employers, issued a position paper on international labor migration, which contains a clear commitment to promote ethical recruitment across the organization’s global membership. The IOE also supports the International Labor Organization’s Fair Recruitment Initiative and, last year, partnered with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to launch a public-private partnership to protect migrant workers and combat unscrupulous recruitment practices. And, just last month, the international trade association that represents private employment agencies (Ciett) adopted a revised code of conduct at its World Employment Conference in Rome. The code not only affirms Ciett’s long-standing commitment to the “employer pays” principle and prohibits fee-charging to workers; it strengthens language on ILO fundamental rights and aligns the code with other international instruments like the UN Protocol on trafficking in persons and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This is the clearest statement yet from the recruitment industry itself and an important step forward in ethical recruitment.

With all of this, maybe we have reached a tipping point, at least in global policy and dialogue. After so many years on the margins, unethical recruitment practices and related issues of debt bondage and forced labor are now taking center stage in supply chains, and industry and multi-stakeholder initiatives involving business. These steps should not be underestimated, not least where they are anchored in trade and employers’ organizations that give them greater visibility, global application and sustainability.

Nevertheless, this must surely be just the first step in a much longer (and more complicated) journey. As important as policy interventions are, they cannot be the end but must only be the beginning of fair recruitment in practice and establishing robust protections for migrant workers. After policies and public commitments come the hard stuff: effective implementation of policies, robust due diligence, effective grievance mechanisms, and credible, timely access to remediation and justice for victims. This is where the rubber hits the road, and it is by these measures that the strength and effectiveness of any new policy or commitment should be judged. This is where Verité put its time and energy, not only supporting dialogue and policy development but helping stakeholders understand, implement and adhere to new commitments, road test them and establish the systems and procedures needed to give them real meaning during recruitment and migration and in the employment relationship.

As more and more companies and business associations look to new policies as a first step, this is what should resonate and guide them in the short and longer term. This should also be the key point of reference for new initiatives at the intersection of business, migration and human rights, including this year’s Global Forum on Migration and Development, which will not only focus on recruitment as a key agenda item but engage business in a more formal way than in previous years. This is the spirit of the call to action launched last week by the ILO and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime on the margins of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Our collective engagement, whether as civil society, business or government, must now push beyond dialogue. Only a sustained commitment to translate dialogue and policy into action will result in the urgent improvements needed to protect the rights of migrants in the global economy.

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