Posted by Mattias Carlson

Ethical, Fair, Responsible, Dignified… recruitment

Increased awareness of the vulnerabilities of migrant workers and the risks they face throughout the migration process has produced in a host of initiatives mostly focused on reducing recruitment fees. Mattias Carlson reviews the main interventions and programmes.

Risks facing migrant workers

Apart from well-known workplace issues that all types of workers may face, (excessive hours, inadequate health and safety provisions etc.), there is growing recognition that these issues are typically compounded for migrant workers during the recruitment process and while employed. They are often charged excessive fees, provided with misleading information about the job on offer or have their documents retained. They may also be more susceptible to inadequate working and living conditions at the destination, often with no options but to remain in exploitative conditions, sometimes in situations akin to forced labour.

Connecting prospective migrant workers in sending countries with employers at the destination is typically the task of third-party recruitment agencies. While agencies can provide useful services, there are serious and well-documented concerns about the way in which many of these third-party actors in migrant sourcing countries currently hire and deploy workers across the world. Several initiatives have been developed with the aim of strengthening the transparency and control of recruitment intermediaries and better protecting migrant workers from exploitation and abuse.


At the level of broad principles, in 2012, the Dhaka Principles for Migration with Dignity provided a roadmap for dignified migration and a set of key principles that employers and recruiters should respect in order to uphold the human rights of migrants. With these Principles at the core, an international consensus started growing around the so called ‘employer pays principle’ under which the worker does not pay any fees for their recruitment or deployment (which in many countries is illegal anyway), but rather these costs are borne by the employer.

In 2014, the International Labour Organization (ILO) launched its high-level Fair Recruitment Initiative, implemented in collaboration with governments and employers’ and workers’ organisations, designed to mitigate issues with unscrupulous employment agencies and other third-party actors that are exploiting migrant workers. Underpinning this initiative are the General Principles and Operational Guidelines for Fair Recruitment (2016), which identifies how governments, employers and recruiters can operate in a way that maximise benefits of labour migration for everyone.

Certification of ‘ethical’ recruiters is emerging as a response to abuses during the recruitment process. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has in recent years been developing the International Recruitment Integrity System (IRIS), based on existing international human rights instruments and ILO Conventions, as well as codes of conducts and best practices from the recruitment industry. With the IRIS Standard, IOM hopes to set an operational benchmark for ethical recruitment, with the aim of creating a supply of certified ethical international recruiters. The scheme is currently being piloted in the Philippines-Canada migrant corridor.

Similarly, Clearview is a certification scheme for labour providers that enables them to demonstrate their responsible conduct in the sourcing and supply of workers. Its technical standards are mapped to align with existing and developing best practices on recruitment including IRIS, the Dhaka Principles, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

A key challenge for businesses is operationalising ethical recruitment and employer pays principles. The Responsible Recruitment Toolkit is a practical online platform developed to enable recruiters, employers and brands to raise the standard of how their recruitment is conducted. Offering interactive tools and step-by-step guidance and resources, it aims to support businesses embedding responsible recruitment practices in their operations.

Taking a more user-driven approach based on worker-voice, the Recruitment Advisor website is designed to provide prospective migrant workers with direct peer-to-peer reviews about recruitment agencies in countries of origin and destination. The platform allows workers to comment on and rate their experiences of using different recruiters, and aim to help workers make critical choices about which agency to use to facilitate their migration process.

From the private sector, the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, a multi-stakeholder collaboration between some of the biggest companies in the world, is committed to promoting the employer pays principle and actively combating the exploitation of migrant workers in global supply chains across industry sectors. Leveraging their market power, they aim to create a demand for ethical recruiters by implementing the employer pays model throughout their global supply chains and operations.

Similarly, the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA, formerly the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition) identifies unethical recruitment as a risk factor to their members’ operations and has initiated a responsible recruitment program providing training and development to support recruiters in meeting requirements and standards of leading brands and companies, which includes capacity-building, verified self-assessments and forced labour audits.

Some sectoral initiatives such as the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) and the International Tourism Partnership (ITP) has also recently committed to the employer pays principle, and are working actively with their members and other stakeholders to develop methods to eliminate recruitment fees.

At the corporate level, a number of global brands, for example adidas, ASOS, Coca-Cola, IKEA, Patagonia, and many others, have also developed specific policies mandating suppliers to adhere to the employer pays principle when recruiting migrant workers. They are also starting to actively assess their suppliers and investigate their labour supply chains to understand the extent of fees paid during the recruitment process and whether migrant workers have their documents retained, enjoy freedom of movement and correct information about the job on offer.

Lately, there have been  some interesting examples of good practice revealed in the Modern Slavery Statements of companies such as Apple and Primark who have been remediating workers by repaying their recruitment fees and ensuring that their documents are not retained. Additionally, the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy for the Qatar football World Cup 2022 has started ensuring repayment of recruitment fees for up to 30,000 migrant construction workers switching the burden of proof from workers to employers in terms of showing whether fees were paid.

Who pays?

The employer pays principle is becoming increasingly accepted and understood at least by international brands. But the key barrier to overcome now is to operationalise the principle by changing the recruitment business model. For a programme such as IRIS to work properly, it’s not only necessary to identify and certify ethical recruiters, but more importantly to create a real market demand for their services, which is where business initiatives like those mentioned above become important. This involves not only global brands buying into the principle, but also their suppliers further up supply chains.

The issue of who will pick up the cost is paramount. The employer pays model is of course more expensive for employers as it involves taking on a cost that was previously externalised to workers.  And in many cases the employer is of course the supplier, not the brand making the commitment. However, costs need to be considered within a context of proactive risk management and there can be cost savings from smarter recruitment in the longer term. Workers who are self-selected on their ability to pay for a job may be less suitable for the work they are conducting (due to skills mismatches), or more prone to leaving the job (creating high staff turnover). Ultimately poor recruitment practices may come with additional costs of repatriation and recruiting replacements. Together, these may lead to lower productivity, and significantly higher costs of recruitment, on-site training and provision of remedies, let alone the risk to brand reputation as unethical recruitment becomes less acceptable.

All companies with production outsourced to suppliers, especially in low- and middle-income countries, face exposure to risks of migrant workers having been unethically recruited. To mitigate such risks, companies should investigate their labour supply chains to understand the migrant corridors through which workers are recruited, which intermediaries are used and whether they are reputable, if any fees have been paid by workers and for what services. This is best achieved by working collaboratively with suppliers and building trust to enable joint understanding of issues and what can be done to improve operations.  Ergon has a variety of tools and databases that can assist in these exercises.