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Putting a spotlight on the high cost of low-wage labour migration

August 8, 2017

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From 10th – 13th July, I had the opportunity of teaching at the International Training Center (ITC) of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) in Turin, Italy. The Labour Migration Academy brings together various stakeholders working on migration and employment issues. My session focused on trends of youth migration and employment, why they should be consulted in policy development as well as the ethics of child/youth participation in migration and employment policy making processes. Moreover, the Academy also featured interesting plenary sessions, on the protection of migrant workers, fair labour migration governance, and linkages between migration and sustainable development.

Emerging directly from the plenary sessions, the Academy underscored the importance of fair recruitment. Public and private employment agencies play a critical role in the functioning of labour markets by matching available jobs with qualified workers. Yet, there has been a growing role of unscrupulous employment agencies who often act outside regulatory frameworks, and it’s often low-skilled workers from developing countries who fall prey to their practices.


What does no recruitment fees (not) mean?

The ILO has certainly done a lot of work in outlining the General principles & operational guidelines for fair recruitment through negotiations with various stakeholders. However, a fundamental issue as ‘No recruitment fees or related costs should be charged to, or otherwise borne by, workers or job seekers’ is often not adhered to by some employers. Why does the cost of recruitment matter? It’s essential because often this cost is high for intending migrants who may already be in the status of unemployed or underemployed with no or little saving to draw on. Thus paying for the recruitment only leaves migrants and their families poorer if they experience debt, bondage and low earnings. Ultimately, it reduces the amount of money that migrant workers can spend in the destination country and how much they can remit home.

Despite the relevance of the ‘No recruitment fees’ principle there has been increasing preference by certain recruiters to charge migrant workers, who are often desperate to leave their origin countries for employment reasons, sometimes resulting to moneylenders for travel loan. For instance, in some migration corridors, migrant workers pay as much as US$4,000 for jobs that pay about USD 3,600 per year. The striking issue is that many if not most of the recruitment process are structured by employers to push the hiring cost on to the migrant worker: First, job opportunities are outsourced by employers to recruitment agencies as a means of avoiding labour laws that prohibit workers from paying recruitment fees. Second, for companies, saving money by pushing the cost of hiring (e.g. employment visa) to the migrant worker means they have enough money for other operational costs that allows them to stay competitive or in business.


Way forward: Speaking the business language

There is no single solution to addressing unfair recruitment. However, as one of the panellists argued, stakeholders including origin country governments and development partners working in the area of promoting fair recruitment need to make the case for businesses to endorse practices that are fair. The solution to addressing unethical practices should not be left to enforcing laws or banning recruiters but rather making employers or recruiters aware of the value of ensuring ethical standards in employment and benefits for business growth. For instance, does no recruitment fee to the worker, transparency and protection in the process of migration concerning internationally recognised human rights, including the fundamental principles and rights at work, improves employee well-being and therefore their work output or not?

Other issues that emerged during the discussion include child labour and whether trade unions should represent working children. Should workers freedom to terminate their employment be counted as ‘an abuse to the employer’? In the light of the current refugee crisis, what kind of measures should be taken against informal and unfair employment in host countries? The issue of refugee employment came up in the context of South-South migration (e.g.Yemenis entering African countries as refugees and people from the Horn of Africa who are moving to Yemen and other Gulf countries for work). How do we make sure that jobs are created so that unemployed refugees are not lured into extremism? Also, the questions of why the ILO has been reluctant to name and shame countries consistently found in human rights violations was also raised.  How do we ensure young people’s rights to meaningful participation amid cultural norms and gerontocracy in most developing countries? What creates brain waste and how do we address the issue without overly blaming destination countries? These were the difficult questions that were, in my view, not adequately addressed which I hope to share some perspectives on later.

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