Protecting Migrant Workers from Deceptive Recruiting Tactics

Human traffickers target specific populations who are vulnerable and desperate.

Posted Nov 17, 2020

She was in debt and had no source of income. Local job opportunities were scarce, and her family desperately needed her support. Surya, a 33-year-old mother from Nepal, left her family and her home country due to the lack of jobs available to her. She explained, “They [the government] should try to understand that we are only going because of the lack of opportunities. If employment problems were addressed, we would not have to make hard choices to go abroad and work in such slavery.” Surya is part of a majority of individuals who migrate to foreign nations because few opportunities exist for them at home. Due to the inherent vulnerabilities, this population of migrant workers is highly susceptible to human trafficking.

The human trafficking industry is the second largest criminal industry in the world generating an estimated $150 billion each year. Alarmingly, profits have tripled over the last decade due to the high reward and low risk for traffickers. There is no shortage of potential victims. Traffickers have infiltrated the global supply chain of migrant workers who are seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Traffickers often target specific populations who are most vulnerable to trafficking, such as people in poverty or refugees, both of which may take any job opportunity out of pure desperation.

While some people might think that human trafficking most often occurs through coercion, labor trafficking occurs through various deception tactics, such as:

  • False job advertisements: This consists of false job listings in credible newspapers under the pseudonym of a registered business. This is mostly seen in countries experiencing economic hardship and high unemployment. Often the worker is required to pay all travel expenses and fees to go abroad. Upon arrival, the victim is forced to work long hours for free or very low pay.
  • Lies about education and travel opportunities: This is especially effective in communities lacking these opportunities, such as individuals living in refugee camps.
  • Debt bondage: Bonded labor, or debt bondage, is probably the least known form of labor trafficking today, and yet it is the most widely used method of enslaving people. Victims become bonded laborers when their labor is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan or in which the value of the victims’ services is not applied toward their debt for housing, food or medical expenses. The value of their work is greater than the original sum of money “borrowed.” Many times, deductions from workers’ pay are completely unreasonable, such as charging $100 for a box of tampons. Sometimes traffickers posing as false employers require workers to pay enormous fees to gain employment. This causes victims to fall into debt that they will never be able to pay with their meager earning, trapping them into servitude.
  • Contract substitution and undisclosed fees: Workers may agree to one contract but then find the terms and conditions greatly altered, often to mask horrible and unsafe working conditions. Sometimes the contract terms are not even written in a language understandable to the worker. Additional penalties and fees that were not disclosed in the contract may arise later as well.
  • Social isolation and lack of passport: Isolation consists of any type of restrictions placed on the victim’s ability to communicate with others, their mobility, and any rights and privacies. Physical and cultural isolation in the workplace weakens the victim’s support network making them more vulnerable to further abuse. Another common practice is the confiscation of passports and documents to instill fear among workers of being arrested for immigration status, as well as to prevent trafficking victims from escaping and returning home. 

Other red flags include visa terms binding the workers to a single employer, thereby increasing their vulnerability, as well as employer control of worker bank accounts.

Despite popular belief, victims of labor trafficking often don’t know they are being trafficked until they have already been deceived. Therefore, it is important to put in place measures that will help reduce this risk and protect workers. In recent years, an emphasis has been placed on addressing this issue through raising awareness, education campaigns, and relief efforts. For example, Verite, an organization that works to promote fair labor worldwide, recognizes the fragmented response to the issue, lack of knowledge surrounding the problem, and absence of government intervention as key enablers of labor trafficking. It created the Standards of Ethical Practice (SEPS), a list of rules for firms practicing cross-border labor recruitment based on business models. They include:

  1. Legal compliance: the company provides legal documentation of licensing and permits and follows all legal measures during recruitment
  2. Transparency and equal access to information: the company clearly lays out all details of working conditions to the employer in a manner/language understandable to them
  3. No fees to jobseekers: no fees or costs to workers to obtain employment
  4. Protection of worker health and safety: the company assesses risks and communicates them to workers; workers are provided with health and safety training and resources
  5. Respect for diversity and nondiscrimination: the company must establish policies protecting against discrimination that are consistent with the global standard, including  protection of individuals from health screening and women from pregnancy screening as prerequisites to employment 
  6. Workers’ rights and decent work: contact agreements don’t infringe on the rights and freedoms of the workers and are upheld to an original agreement that clearly lays out the terms of employment.
  7. Confidentiality: the company has procedures in place for protecting documents and information received on behalf of workers.
  8. Avoidance of corruption and conflict of interest: the company upholds standards to all laws and does not engage in fraud including extortion, bribery, collusion, or any forms of corruption.

Several organizations are also devoted to promoting ethical recruitment. The Responsible Business Alliance recognizes that solutions to this problem require a multi-sector, multi industry approach. It launched the Responsible Labor Initiative (RLI) to protect the life, liberty, and security of workers through gaining commitment from companies in various industries to uphold the integrity of companies, and rights, privacies, and safety of workers. Similarly, the Corporate Responsibility in Eliminating Slavery and Trafficking (CREST) by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) created a holistic framework for addressing the issue through functional policies for recruitment that help eliminate worker vulnerabilities. CREST set a model for helping businesses become more informed on how to avoid contributing to the issue. Their model uses a business wide approach to improve communications between agencies and workers, support services, better understanding of worker vulnerabilities, and training on how to approach and monitor the issue. The US Department of Labor (DOL) works with foreign governments to share information on important issues relating to labor practices. The Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) focuses particularly on prevention and protection working to uphold rights of workers everywhere.

Many governments recognize the severity of human trafficking but few are implementing policies to combat it. Although the US raises awareness of the issue through sharing of information, there are not enough safeguards in place to protect migrant workers. Although not specifically for human trafficking, the Philippines has exerted diplomatic power in the global labor market by providing resources for emigrant workers that may experience abuse in their migrated country. If a Filipino worker experiences abuse in a foreign nation, they can go to the Filipino embassy to report the abuse and the government will pay for them to return home. This is an example of a policy that would be beneficial to migrant workers around the globe. Similarly, the Indonesian government provides pre-department training to workers. Additionally, foreign employers are required to obtain a special permit to enable them to recruit and train workers from Indonesia. Despite these policies, many Indonesian women still experience abuse in the workplace. But additional efforts are being made to amend laws to further protect Indonesian migrant workers.

As consumers, we can put pressure on governments and private enterprise to do more to protect migrant workers. Consumers play a large part in maintaining the demand for labor produced by human trafficking victims, which means we also have the power to curb it.

This post was co-written by Mellissa Withers and Kathryn Maloney

Mellissa Withers is an associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California's Online Master of Public Health program.

Kathryn Maloney, a USC student majoring in global health