One of the most exploitative phases of transnational labor migration—recruitment for work abroad—takes place before a migrant has even left her home country. During the recruitment process, it is routine for recruiters and their agents to make false promises about the jobs on offer, charge would-be migrants fees that exceed their annual income, and offer loans at usurious rates, demanding property deeds as collateral. These practices, and others even more disturbing, reflect the fact that recruitment is a functionally unregulated field. Origin countries are deeply conflicted about any enforcement that might limit their citizens’ access to employment abroad, and destination nations too often regard what happens to migrants on other shores as none of their concern. Recruitment is also a heavily subcontracted industry, which allows the principle actors to avoid what liability exists by pointing to entities further down the chain. Frequently, then, the only real law recruitment firms face is that of supply and demand. In a context where the number of would-be migrant workers far exceeds the availability of employment, opportunities for abuse abound.
Fortunately, this is a moment of active experimentation around the world with new standards and strategies to curb recruitment violations. It is exciting to see so much thought and energy, both public and private, going into what was once an invisible problem. I argue here and elsewhere, however, that this developing field would benefit from additional attention to three features: a primary (or at least equal) focus on the ultimate employer rather than the recruiter as the target of enforcement, the creation of meaningful economic incentives for employer and recruiter compliance, and more active roles for workers in the fight against recruitment abuses.
In a paper to be published by the International Labor Organization in 2015, I address the first two issues. I contend that a key goal of efforts to regulate recruitment should be to reshape the incentives of the entities at the top of the product or service supply chain, so that in turn they become the forces driving compliance by the recruiters below. Likewise, recruiters at the top of labor supply chains must be made liable for the false promises and unauthorized charges of their sub-agents and brokers.
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