Responsible recruitment and human rights: what’s the solution?

The Sedex Conference 2017 brought together industry experts to cover the topic of responsible recruitment – firstly, showcasing what irresponsible recruitment practices look like, secondly, highlighting solutions related to existing initiatives and regulations to overcome that; and finally, suggesting ways to move forward in this key area.

At Sedex’s annual 2017 conference, Frances House, the Deputy Executive Director at the Institute for Human Rights & Business facilitated a panel discussion on “Responsible Recruitment”. The panel consisted of:

  • Samuel Cliff, Ethical Trade Manager at Worldwide Fruit LTD
  • Henriette McCool, Senior Corporate Social Responsibility Officer at Qatari Diar Vinci Construction (QDVC)
  • Lucy Keohane, Responsible Sourcing Manager at Tesco
  • Mark Taylor, Commercial Director at Vital Recruitment

Recruitment and forced labour

Responsible recruitment is about ensuring that labour employment procedures across supply chains have been carried out in an ethical manner. It is about protecting the basic human rights of all people, safeguarding the livelihoods of workers across all sectors, in all countries. Across supply chains, the risk of irresponsible recruitment is extremely high, especially when suppliers branch out across multiple tiers and in countries with a lack of ‘red tape’.

However, recruitment agencies do have an indispensable role in labour markets. Supply chains are often long and complicated, and most companies do not have the full capabilities or levels of coordination to solely manage their workforces across several supplier tiers, countries, time zones and languages. Therefore, recruiters offer a more efficient solution to labour sourcing, especially in sectors that require seasonal workers or those migrating from other countries. However, it is not out of the ordinary for recruitment fees to exist – this can be a legitimate payment for a necessary service provided by recruiters. However, due to the vulnerability of many workers seeking employment, recruitment companies may either take advantage of, or set-up agencies solely to make money out of others’ misfortune. Eradicating irresponsible recruitment is paramount to protect the rights of millions of people all over the world.


The problem: irresponsible recruitment

During the discussion, Frances House highlighted that workers are often being charged fees to secure jobs, yet “nobody really has a sense of what is the true scale of the problem of bonded labour and forced labour”. This lack of transparency leaves room for the increased risk of irresponsible recruitment and bonded labour, whether a company realises or not. Samuel Cliff believes that businesses must firstly look inward to their own processes and actions, and this is because ”our own business is the one we can have the most change and impact over”. By mapping your supply chains, you can learn a great deal about where your labour is coming from, and armed with this information, you have a greater opportunity to change it.

Unethical recruitment companies often cheat their workers in a variety of ways; not only are workers charged a large initial fee, but they are often tied into a contract which forces them to continue paying a percentage of their income every month. Frequently, the job promised to the worker turns out to be very different to what they expected, in terms of tasks, location, salary, work hours, accommodation and working conditions. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “agencies also engage in debt bondage, isolation, surveillance, withholding of money, violence, and threats of violence and denunciation to authorities”.1 Migrant workers are often forced into handing over their passports, visas, or other identity documents, which consequently restricts their freedom to enter or leave a country. When we think of migrant workers being abused and taken advantage of, most thoughts go towards developing countries and those with little law enforcement. Whilst it is true that these areas allow for greater exploitation, it is crucial to remember that forced labour and irresponsible recruitment takes place all over the world, including in the UK.

A large part of the problem is that workers need recruiters, as they often have little knowledge of the administrative processes involved in the labour markets, such as the complicated visa procedures, language barrier, and the unfamiliarity of the destination country. As many migrant workers are often poorly educated and unfamiliar with dealings outside of their own country, recruiters often take advantage and either charge higher fees for their ‘extra’ help or deceive the worker about the destination countries’ laws and the workers’ rights in such places.


Where in the world?

UK – The Human Trafficking Foundation believe that there are around 20,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK2. This affects both migrants and residents, and in some areas includes children. Stories of Polish workers being sent to the UK, only to work long hours with half their pay taken, along with their passports and other documents, are far too common3.

Thailand – Over the past 5 years, Thailand has been under scrutiny for modern slavery in their fishing industry. Examples include boatloads of Burmese and Cambodian workers being offered factory jobs before being forced to work on large fishing vessels, which travelled to remote and lawless waters, sometimes as far as South Africa.4 Many victims stated that they were forced to work up to 20 hours a day, with no pay. Those that tried to escape, were confronted with physical beating or death in extreme cases – “Working on a boat faced with violence and abuse, in the middle of the ocean where you couldn’t even see the shore…it seemed like there was no future at all.”5

Brazil – The International Labour Organisation published a detailed report on fighting forced labour in Brazil. This highlighted an example at a charcoal camp in the northern states of Para and Tocantins where workers were forced to live in makeshift wooden huts, with no access to clean drinking water. Furthermore, all food had to be purchased from the camp’s shop, which created a “relationship of dependency between the workers and the estate”.6

India – Bonded labour is heavily prevalent in India, with the most vulnerable workers from poorer backgrounds and lower ‘castes’. The International Dalit Solidarity Network work globally against caste-based discrimination and provide examples of how Dalits are being exploited in the recruitment labour industry. One example they give is around the textiles industry in south India, where Dalit girls are lured into working in cotton mills by recruiters, under the impression they are on the ‘Sumangali Scheme’, or the ‘marriage scheme’. This promises a dowry payment for completing three years of work (the exchange of money, goods or services from the bride’s family to the groom’s family as a condition of marriage). However, these girls are often ‘trapped in a 68‐hour working week, with no contracts or payslips, and face being locked inside factory and dormitory compounds during working and non‐working hours”.7


The solution: achieving responsible recruitment

Tighter rules and regulations in the labour market are trying to prevent irresponsible recruitment from occurring. In the UK, laws and procedures are becoming a lot more stringent, but that doesn’t guarantee that recruitment is responsible. In 2005, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) was formed, who are a non-departmental public body which regulates businesses who provide workers to the fresh produce supply chain and horticulture industry, to make sure they meet the employment standards required by law. In 2016, this body became the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, and included new powers for controlling the labour market. Samuel believes that the GLAA “helps to bring a level playing field”. Mark Taylor, Commercial Director at Vital Recruitment, then gave further insight into how the GLAA has helped change improper activity in the labour market in the UK; before its implementation, there were over 13,000 recruitment agencies supplying labour to the food industry. Now, there are around 1,000 agencies in possession of the GLAA license, which indicates that approximately 12,000 companies didn’t “have an appetite to work in a regulated, legislatively managed and monitored sector”.

However, although the GLAA forces better practice to be implemented, it is again a matter of a company actively wanting to change because they want to achieve something positive, not just for themselves, but for others too.

This brought the debate to the next point, on how far licensing and legislation can actually take businesses and whether it’s enough to achieve responsible recruitment. In the UK, despite the GLAA being active for over 10 years, there are still numerous workers being bonded and living in poor conditions. Therefore, every part of the supply chain, from employers to agencies and customers need to use every tool and technique available to implement proper business practice.

Mark explained how, at Vital Recruitment, they have employed numerous initiatives to make sure their recruitment is responsible;

  • An MRZ (machine readable zone) checker is used at the beginning of the registration process, to check that passports are legitimate to ensure a worker’s work status in the country. Vital Recruitment found that although they don’t get many illegal passports, the process actually prevents people who are operating illegally trying to register with the agency. If all agencies used this process, unethically sourced workers wouldn’t have the option to join recruitment firms in the UK, unless their facilitators became legitimate.
  • Vital Recruitment require all employees to have their own bank accounts, to ensure that people remain independent, despite changing social circumstances.
  • Vital Recruitment check their potential employees’ details, such as the home address. If multiple addresses appear, the home address will be further assessed to ensure workers are not living in communal homes often used by facilitators.
  • Vital Recruitment check the next of kin telephone number provided. This is because bonded groups tend to have one main facilitator who directs where workers go and how they get to work. Therefore, if a number is repeated for many workers, it will be investigated to check whether the employees might be a victim of irresponsible recruitment and forced labour.

Adding to this, Samuel Cliff, Ethical Trade Manager at Worldwide Fruit LTD, discussed that on top of technologies helping with responsible recruitment, companies should be training their HR teams properly to be able to check for such issues more efficiently and quickly.

As the truth behind modern slavery becomes more visible, businesses are taking on new approaches for achieving ethical recruitment. This includes the promise that employers will be the people paying recruiters and never the employee. This new approach helps distinguish those companies who genuinely care about making their actions ethical, and those who are simply implementing it as a marketing strategy. This pledge to their workforce highlights that companies understand that to abolish irresponsible recruitment there is a cost. However, by paying this, the benefits in the long-run will likely be greater in terms of a happier and therefore more efficient workforce and also through improved brand reputation.

As long as companies recognise the problems and actively seek to sort the problem in an employee-advantageous way, it is one step closer to achieving a more ethical supply chain and responsible recruitment practices. Assessing where to start in your ethical journey can be overwhelming and complex, but getting it right is crucial for your brand reputation. Sedex’s brand new ‘Forced Labour Indicator Reports’ create reports to show businesses their areas of potential forced labour risks within their supply chain. This unique tool was released on the 27th June 2017. You can find out more about the tool here.


The future

As society becomes more aware of responsible business practices, laws and regulations have followed and become more stringent and detailed. This is evidenced not only through the GLAA creation and evolution but also in the Modern Slavery Act, which was passed by the UK Government in a bill in 2015, which made it a legal requirement for businesses who have an annual turnover of over £36 million to publish their slavery and human trafficking statement and any steps they’re taking to tackle such issues. Both the UN and International Labour Organisation continue to take significant action towards enforcing international regulations in regards to human rights within a business context, with more information available on their websites: and

An important point to take from this discussion was one raised by Frances, who said that whilst companies are addressing the problem of forced labour and responsible recruitment, none of them would say ‘we have solved this problem’. However, if they are actively engaging in its prevention and making a policy commitment to stop irresponsible recruitment, then they are taking the right steps forward to a mutual end goal. This behaviour can be viewed as a triangle of objectives, with the logic that if more companies demand ethically sourced labour then the supply of ethical labour providers will increase to meet this demand. This change is then supported by proper legislation and regulation that is appropriately monitored and enforced. Frances concluded that; 

“If you’ve then got those three points of the triangle aligned, then maybe we do get to transformational change where we see worker’s fees just in the domain of criminal activity rather than in everyday practice”.



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