Migrant labor opportunities offer hundreds of millions of people the chance to escape poverty. But workers in industries like construction are some of the most vulnerable employees in global supply chains.
Globalization involves not only the free movement of goods, but of workers. Migrant workers seek opportunities they may not be able to secure at home, and countries and corporations are able to employ migrant workforces when seeking to secure competitive advantages. But even prior to making their journeys, migrant workers are often forced to pay hefty “recruitment fees” to a series of labor brokers. The imposition of these fees by recruitment agents is illegal but commonplace. Workers who are compelled to pay recruitment fees often end up in heavy debt, and as a result, have little recourse in case of abusive work conditions in their regions of destination. This issue is global but particularly acute in the Arabian Gulf.
Diagnosing the Problem
Since 2015, we have published reports, research briefs, and commentaries on business practices in the Gulf construction industry that make recruitment fees both more common and more costly to migrants. Our first report, Making Workers Pay: Recruitment of the Migrant Labor Force in the Gulf Construction Industry, examined business practices at multiple levels that lead to or encourage the proliferation of these fees.
Eliminating worker-paid fees will require that clients and contractors come together to bear the true cost of recruitment. We are currently working to identify the cost of responsible recruitment through a detailed accounting of one firm’s attempt to recruit without workers paying fees.
To identify specific actors who are commissioning, sponsoring, and employing workers in the region, we produced the Gulf contract tracker (in collaboration with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and Humanity United). The tracker documents new construction awards in the GCC that are likely to involve low-wage migrant labor.
We are now working with some of the largest project clients and contractors in the Gulf region to achieve consensus on these issues. Ultimately, we seek to reform the way business is done and level the playing field for all actors.