Week of 30 November 2020
While COVID-19 is slowing down travel and the economy, it’s not relieving migrant workers of the burden of recruitment fees – quite the contrary
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the issue of recruitment fees—a long-standing human rights concern in our increasingly globalised workforce—into sharp relief. The ILO’s comparative study of laws and policies highlights “a grave concern” that “the contraction of the global labour market will increase pressure on migrant workers to pay high recruitment fees and related costs as they are forced to ‘compete’ for scare jobs abroad, particularly the low-wage jobs most often accessible to migrant workers.” The ILO underscores new challenges in recruitment processes, such as delays in processing of documentation and difficulties in obtaining reimbursements of fees. What’s more, even where countries do have policies to prevent or regulate recruitment fees, monitoring and enforcement remain lacking.
The ILO’s A Global Comparative Study on Defining Recruitment Fees and Related Costs: Interregional Research on Law, Policy and Practice analyses how different countries and regions impose laws and policies on the payment of recruitment fees and related costs. It reviews policies from 90 countries that have laws on recruitment fees (whether prohibitions or parameters), as well as 18 bilateral agreements and MOUs on recruitment fees and 12 “private voluntary guidance documents” related to the “employer pays principle.”
The study aims to “serve as a useful guidance and reference point while governments and social partners plan and implement the immediate and long-term response to COVID-19, including the prevention of abusive and fraudulent recruitment practices.” According to the ILO General Principles and Operational Guidelines for Fair Recruitment, recruitment fees and related costs are defined “any fees or costs incurred in the recruitment process in order for workers to secure employment or placement, regardless of the manner, timing or location of their imposition or collection.” These guidelines prohibit the charging of these fees and related costs to workers.
Why this matters
- COVID-19 is increasing vulnerability for all workers, and especially migrant workers. “The unprecedented reduction in economic activity is critically impacting all workers, including migrant workers, putting them in economic peril, and endangering their health and psychosocial wellbeing. Nevertheless, countries and business are and will continue recruiting workers nationally and internationally, in particular into those sectors considered essential.”
- Reduced economic activity is likely to increase the vulnerability of workers to recruitment costs. “While recruitment practices are adapting quickly to respect COVID-19 prevention measures, a grave concern is that the contraction of the global labour market will increase pressure on migrant workers to pay high recruitment fees and related costs as they are forced to ‘compete’ for scare jobs abroad, particularly the low-wage jobs most often accessible to migrant workers.”
- Paying recruitment fees exacerbates other vulnerabilities for workers. “Already prior to the pandemic, evidence has repeatedly shown that the payment of recruitment fees and related costs significantly increases the risk to workers of experiencing forced labour, debt bondage and human trafficking.”
- Already before the pandemic, recruitment costs were significant. “The ILO has found that the ‘costs of coercion were approximately US$21 billion, with the total amount of underpaid wages estimated to be US$19.6 billion, with the remaining US$1.4 billion attributed to illegal recruitment fees.” (referencing 2014 data) “At the same time, recruitment costs are a significant subset of labour migration costs, and survey data has shown that recruitment costs can amount to nine months or more of average monthly earnings in some corridors.”
- Travel limitations caused by COVID-19 brings a new set of challenges for migrant workers. “As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the world, workers are now facing new challenges in their recruitment processes, but the issue of payment of recruitment fees and costs persists. Workers may no longer be able to be (re)deployed due to travel restrictions and delays in processing of documentation, with the obvious risk of losing their jobs. They may already have paid fees and costs related to their recruitment or deployment and face difficulties in obtaining reimbursements.”
- Most countries are opting to disallow recruitment fees altogether. “Prohibition of fees for workers is the dominant policy approach, which has been adopted by 63 national policies (63 per cent). The majority of these 63 policies (44, or 70 per cent) cover both national and cross-border recruitment; 11 (17 per cent) exclusively refer to international recruitment; and 8 (13 per cent) pertain only to national recruitment.”
- Other countries are choosing to regulate recruitment fees rather than ban them. 36 countries have a policy that regulates the payment of recruitment fees (but does not prohibit it); 13 of these countries apply the policy to both national and international recruitment, while 19 only cover international recruitment and 4 only cover national recruitment.
- Laws vary by region, but not by much. European countries tend to prohibit all payment of recruitment costs, whether at home or abroad, while in the Middle East and North Africa fees are typically prohibited only for international recruitment. In Asia-Pacific, many governments have created separate ministries for labour migration and most regulate (but do not prohibit) payment of recruitment fees and related costs, with half of these focused exclusively on international recruitment. In the Americas, more countries prohibit charging fees than those that only regulate it, and in Africa, there is an even split.
- A few countries’ laws focus on specific sectors. “Only in a few cases do national laws and regulations focus on a specific sector – for example agriculture, domestic work or construction.”
- While most countries have laws allowing for sanctions for noncompliance, monitoring and enforcement remain limited. “Sixty-six countries (73 per cent) have legal provisions to sanction violations of policies on fees and related costs, including suspension, revocation of licences, imposition of fines and penalties, and criminal charges. Monitoring and enforcement of national laws and policies on fee and related cost charging, however, is limited.”
- Less than half of the countries have formally defined recruitment fees and related costs. “Twenty-seven countries have formulated full or partial definitions of recruitment fees and related costs. Six have included a full definition of their recruitment fees and costs, while the others have itemized cost categories and identified cost-sharing arrangements.”
Read the full report here: ILO, A Global Comparative Study on Defining Recruitment Fees and Related Costs: Interregional Research on Law, Policy and Practice (November 2020)