The “ethical recruitment” model for unskilled workers in the Gulf seems to be stuck in a permanent nascent state. Businesses know that when it comes to recruitment, ethics are not free, and the current system can pay. Advocates must re-conceptualize the business case for ethical recruitment practices by focusing on the potential significant long-term and strategic savings they offer to employers.
The notion of the “ethical recruitment” of migrant construction workers in the Gulf is not new. Labor rights groups have long condemned “recruitment fees,” whereby these migrants essentially pay for their own recruitment, rather than their would-be employers, as required by international and most relevant domestic law. Organizations like Verité have produced valuable reports on what truly ethical recruitment should look like. Human Rights Watch recently produced a set of guidelines specifically for construction companies wishing to improve human rights for Gulf migrant workers along their supply chains, including recommendations related to home-country recruitment. Large companies with operating interests in the Gulf, as in other regions, often privately and publicly express their desire to improve the recruitment process to avoid some of the human rights pitfalls associated with unethical recruitment, like worker fees, bribes, and fraud.
But a simple search engine query will highlight the meager inroads that ethical recruitment business models have made in the Gulf. A search for “ethical recruitment Qatar” or some variation thereof will return a number of important human rights reports on the need for it, but very few, if any, examples of effective implementation. The same search for the UAE will produce some white collar job postings for ethics compliance positions based in Dubai or Abu Dhabi—along with a few for “ethical hackers”—but almost nothing on ethical recruitment. And if a company actually wanted to search for agencies in either country that specialize in or advertise ethical recruitment services, they would be hard-pressed even to locate the few that do fit the bill.
The ethical recruitment model for unskilled workers in the Gulf seems to be stuck in a permanent nascent state. The most important practical reason for this—and perhaps the most difficult one for advocates to admit—is that it can cost companies more than common forms of recruitment currently practiced. This should not be surprising, given the fact that less-than-ethical actors are known to pass on the cost of migration to migrants themselves, thereby shielding employers from their legal responsibility to bear that cost. Businesses know that when it comes to recruitment, ethics are not free, and the current system can pay.
For high-skilled, mostly white-collar migrant workers, companies often deem the cost of ethical recruitment to be worth the investment, both because of the perceived value of future employees’ financial contributions and because candidates for these positions likely won’t tolerate the abuses faced by many lower-skilled workers.
This simple truth, more than anything else, is the primary obstacle to achieving high-level corporate buy-in amongst construction companies for the use of ethical recruitment agencies when procuring unskilled migrant labor (note: many construction companies will blacklist particularly unscrupulous actors, but most of the “better” agencies they continue to use would not qualify as “ethical” by Verite’s standards, for example).
How, then, should advocates for migrant construction workers and others in the Gulf proceed? First, we should not obfuscate regarding the business costs of truly ethical recruitment. While perhaps not significant for large, multi-national firms, there are costs affiliated with the practice.
Instead, we should focus on studying the potential significant long-term and strategic savings that this option may offer to employers. For example, while companies might incur up-front costs by employing an ethical recruiter, these costs may be offset by long-term gains related to workforce stability and quality, and therefore morale. This is to say nothing of the legal and reputational risks companies face by not engaging truly ethical recruiters, especially as countries like the U.K. and U.S. and confederations including the European Union and OECD ramp up supply chain responsibility initiatives. At the very least, we ought to be re-conceptualizing the business case for ethical recruitment to account for these and other factors.
Second, we should encourage construction firms to band together in their efforts to engage ethical recruiters and encourage ethical practices. Industry-wide initiatives like this would be advantageous for any company wishing to participate, since they would ensure that like-minded competitors won’t undercut one another in this regard. As of now, there are very few recruitment agencies operating in the Gulf migrant worker space that specialize in ethical practices, but if construction firms worked together to engage the few already out there, it would not take long for others to spring up to meet the corresponding demand. Alternatively, companies could work together to meaningfully encourage the agencies they already employ—which may not currently be “ethical recruiters” in the strictest sense—to become more scrupulous by holding them to uniform, industry-wide standards.
Large construction firms should—and mostly do—know that there is a cost associated with ethically recruiting migrant labor, but they should also know that the investment is top-heavy and that there are long-term dividends to be had by working together to encourage such practices. Plus, it has the added advantage of being the right thing to do.
David Segall is a Policy Associate at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, where he focuses on the recruitment and migration of construction workers from South Asia to the Arabian Gulf. He recently published a column in Fair Observer, “Business Should Step in on Behalf of Migrant Workers in the Gulf.”