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Recruiters or Merchants of Labor

June 18, 2018

Workers employed temporarily away from "home" often rely on private and for-profit recruiters to help them find jobs. Regulating these merchants of labor is problematic, in part because the ILO and other UN agencies believe that governments should provide no-cost job matching services for workers seeking jobs and employers seeking workers. ILO conventions call on employers seeking foreign workers to pay all recruitment costs.

This "no-cost-to-workers" principle is difficult to enforce when there are more workers than jobs, which allows recruiters to charge workers for jobs.

Labor recruiters have a long and checkered history, often associated with trickery or coercion to fill undesirable jobs, from finding soldiers in ancient Rome and sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries to moving low-skilled workers over borders today. International labor recruiters operate in settings where workers are at several disadvantages, relying on recruiters to deal with foreign employers and government bureaucracies at home and abroad.

Almost all governments follow a three-pronged strategy to protect migrant workers. They require recruiters to identify themselves by securing licenses, set maximum fees recruiters can charge workers, and deal with complaints from aggrieved workers.

Structural factors make it difficult to regulate recruiters. First, with the supply of workers exceeding demand, recruiters use fees to allocate scarce foreign jobs among workers eager to go abroad. Second, many recruiters lack long-term relationships with the employers for whom they recruit workers and the workers they place in jobs. If employers perceive low-skilled workers to be interchangeable, they may do business with the lowest-cost recruiter or one that offers to pay employers. Similarly, workers may not return to the same recruiter during later job searches.

The ILO, the UN agency responsible for protecting workers, is concerned about recruiters and migrant workers. ILO conventions call on governments to operate no-fee labor exchanges and calls on governments to sign bilateral agreements to regulate international labor migration that encourage the use of public labor exchanges and discourage reliance on fee-charging private recruiters.

The ILO found "unscrupulous employment agencies, informal labor intermediaries and other operators acting outside the legal and regulatory framework … to prey especially on low-skilled workers." This prompted the issuance of "General principles and operational guidelines for fair recruitment" in 2016.

The four-pronged ILO Fair Recruitment Initiative focuses on enhancing knowledge of national and international recruitment practices, improving laws and enforcement to promote fair recruitment practices, encouraging fair business practices, and empowering and protecting workers.

The ILO’s General Principle 2 states that: "Recruitment should respond to established labor market needs, and not serve as a means to displace or diminish an existing workforce, to lower labor standards, wages, or working conditions, or to otherwise undermine decent work." Principle 7 asserts that "No recruitment fees or related costs should be charged to, or otherwise borne by, workers or job seekers."

ILO. 2016. General principles and operational guidelines for fair recruitment

Martin, Philip. 2017. Merchants of Labor: Recruiters and International Labor Migration. Oxford University Press.