Ethical business means better business. This is the message that our partner, Fair Employment Foundation (FEF), continues to share with businesses and recruiting agencies across the globe.
Founded on the belief that “forced labor is a solvable world problem,” FEF works to fix broken recruitment systems and build market solutions to end the forced labor of migrant workers. FEF is pushing back against agencies and training centers that focus more on the business of migration than the migrants themselves. With an eye on profits, recruiters are often incentivized to place those who are willing to pay rather than those who are best fitted for a job. They are also less invested in making sure migrants are prepared for work abroad –if a worker quits or gets fired, the agency can simply charge another worker the same fee. In other words, it is on the backs of migrant workers that recruitment agencies and training institutes succeed.
To begin to transform a recruitment system that harms both workers and employers, FEF established its own placement agency in Hong Kong in 2014. Two years later, the Fair Training Center opened its doors in Manila, Philippines. In becoming both placement agency and trainer, FEF is transforming industry standards and driving change to end forced labor.
Forced Labor in the Domestic Service Industry
While one in eight Hong Kong households currently employs a migrant domestic worker, this number is only expected to grow as the country learns to cope with a rapidly aging population. The Filipino government estimates that one in four of the 11.5 million migrant domestic workers in the world are Filipina women; Hong Kong alone is home to 200,000 Filipina domestic workers. Despite laws governing the sector, the domestic service industry has the largest share of forced labor in the private economy, accounting for nearly 25% of cases. Debt bondage – often the result of exploitative fees — is one of the most prevalent forms of forced labor. Domestic workers are especially vulnerable to abuse as they are employed in private households, their labor unseen and therefore unregulated. 80% of domestic workers are women.
Given the high prevalence of Filipinas in the domestic service industry and the high rate of exploitation in this sector, we partnered with FEF to scale its ethical recruitment model. From our shared commitment to systems change, we are working to build sustainable and scalable solutions that address the problem at each stage of the recruitment process, from pre-departure to placement and beyond.
Training for Work AND Life Overseas
The Filipino government currently mandates that migrant workers obtain a certificate affirming skill level from the country’s Technical Authority (Technical Education And Skills Development Authority or TESDA) before departing. Though training is not required, most migrants choose to participate to prepare both for the skills assessment and for life overseas. Training is rigorous, requiring participants in TESDA- accredited domestic service programs to complete at least 218 credit hours and master a set of “core competencies” that includes cleaning rooms, washing and ironing clothes, and preparing hot and cold meals. (In collaboration with ILO and Fair Training Center, TESDA recently launched a pilot hybrid-learning program that shortens the training period for the Domestic Work certificate to 12 days.) However, despite intensive skills training, many migrant domestic workers struggle with the experience of living and working abroad. Between 30 and 40% of first-time Philippine domestic worker placements overseas are terminated or break their employment contract in just the first few months. Without a job, migrant workers become even more vulnerable, pressured to quickly find another job or leave the country.
In addition, training costs money– a lot of money. Excessive fees force many migrants into debt before they are ever introduced to a recruitment agency. OneTESDA-accredited training school for domestic workers going abroad, charges $368 in tuition and another $10 for the test. The average monthly income in the Philippines is about $290. Though migrants pay these fees for the chance to work abroad and earn higher wages, debt is not something that is easily overcome, especially for migrant workers. Separated from home and community, migrants often struggle under the weight of perpetual debt, a struggle that puts them at greater risk of exploitation.
As part of its mission to ensure safer migration for overseas domestic workers, FEF opened Fair Training Center in Manila in late 2016. Built from the same commitment to ethical recruitment, the Center provides a more comprehensive curriculum for overseas workers, one that takes into account employer expectations and local or country-specific conditions. While training helps overseas workers hone technical skills such as cooking and cleaning, it also supports development of soft skills such as communication and professionalism. Migrants are educated on their rights and receive training and advice, not only on how to cope with the challenges of living overseas, but on how to thrive as migrant workers in a foreign country. From the 30%-40% termination rate, Fair Training Center boasts dramatically reduced rates of early termination. Less than 10% of overseas domestic workers trained at the center are terminated or break their contracts in the first three months of employment. The UN’s International Labor Organization refers to FEF’s program as “the gold standard for pre-migration training.”
Ethical Recruitment: An End-to-End Solution
While the Fair Training Center helps migrants avoid training fees and provides more comprehensive training, it is only one piece of FEF’s ethical recruitment model. Migrant workers confront the threat of exploitation at nearly every step in the migration process. It may begin at the point of training, but it lingers throughout the process of recruitment and placement as agencies in both the Philippines and Hong Kong exploit migrant workers by charging exorbitant fees.
To address the issue at the site of origin, FEF partnered with Staffhouse, one of the largest recruitment agencies in the Philippines and one similarly committed to ethical recruitment and zero-fee charging. As Staffhouse has ranked as the Top Deploying Agency for skilled workers by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) for three consecutive years, FEF is confident this new partnership will be transformational for the entire industry in the Philippines.
At the destination site, FEF already operates Fair Employment Agency (FEA), an ethical placement agency. With an emphasis on full transparency and matching the right employee with the right employer, FEA has built a reputation as one of the region’s most trustworthy recruiting sources. In 2020, FEA placed its 4000th domestic worker, helping these migrant workers collectively avoid an estimated US $7.5 million in recruitment debt.
With GFEMS support, FEF was able to scale up its recruitment services. Additional investments in staff and resources needed to interview and place workers, process visas, engage with employers, and monitor placements enabled FEA to safely place hundreds more migrant workers. By 2021, FEA achieved its 5000th placement. Half of these placements have been Filipino domestic workers. None have been charged a fee.
Every year, millions of workers leave their homes for better opportunities abroad. However, the circumstances that push migrant workers out are often the ones that make them most susceptible to exploitation and abuse: poverty, low wages, low-skill, and general lack of economic opportunity. Our investment in FEF and its ethical recruitment model has helped thousands of Filipino workers forge successful migration paths. It is a model that is replicable and scalable (see sidebar) and one that has the potential, not only to disrupt business-as-usual practices that harm migrant workers, but to really begin to change systems that enable modern slavery.
To learn more about FEF, please visit https://www.fairgroup.org/.
Programs referenced in this article are funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.
Investing in Solutions that are Replicable and Scalable
In 2019, Malaysia’s first ethical recruitment agency opened its doors. With access to resources and networks developed under the GFEMS-FEF partnership and under the mentorship of FEF’s CEO, Zenna Law and Elaine Sim founded Pinkcollar to help domestic workers migrate to Malaysia safely and debt-free. With this support, Law says, “Pinkcollar launched its services with a tried-and-tested recruitment strategy that we felt confident with.”
Pinkcollar exemplifies perfectly what binds GFEMS and FEF together: a commitment to solutions that are replicable and scaleable, solutions that will ultimately uproot the systems that enable modern slavery.
“We see supporting emerging ethical players in the recruitment industry as the next step to broadening our impact,” asserts FEF’s CEO. With more agencies pursuing ethical recruitment models, new industries and markets will be reached much more efficiently, and we will “achieve our aim of ending forced labour of migrant workers.”