A few good agents

Recognising good examples among migrant worker recruiters is as important as holding the bad ones accountable


At the close of 2020, the Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE) conducted a  sting operation on a recruiting agency that was fleecing workers. The raid of its staff was made possible by migrant workers who turned to the public system for help, and it responded efficiently in their favour.

This was not a one-off operation, but the eleventh one in December. It sent a strong message to the industry that every vulnerable migrant that is being cheated could be a potential whistleblower.

There was nothing exceptional about the way the recruitment agency was operating—similar transactions, potentially of higher amounts, are a norm. Interestingly, there are also a few exceptions at the other extreme: agencies that practice ethical recruitment.

One such agency is International Manpower (IMR), a recruiter that does not charge migrants any fees. As one of the largest recruiters in Nepal engaged with over a dozen employers in Malaysia and now diversifying to the Gulf, it has sent over 6,000 workers without charging them any fees.

But it is an uphill battle, says Y B Rai from IMR. “We have been around for 17 years but have been practicing ethical recruitment only since 2016. For a couple of years, we adopted a hybrid model before we transitioned to ethical recruitment,” says Rai, adding that there is a steep learning curve.

To be sure, the path IMR has chosen is fraught with challenges. Employers who want to source ethically, audit closely before partnering with agents and run a thorough check on their background and operation module.

In the past four years of operation, IMR has often turned down employers unwilling to pay service fees, even though it comes at a cost of foregoing easy money. The act of turning down business opportunities comes as a surprise to many employers who are used to getting kickbacks for job quotas.

And migrants are in disbelief when IMR staff counsel them on not paying a single rupee for the jobs, because migrants when seeking jobs, tend to associate recruitment costs positively with 'job quality'.

At Kathmandu airport last week, Kishori Mahara (pictured left) was headed to the UAE through IMR’s support. He said that till the last moment he still could not believe that he had not paid any fees for his job. He had paid agents in the past for jobs in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

IMR staff admit that they are an anomaly in the industry, and they have to forego easy and profitable offers. “To be able to hand over this business to our children with pride is a dream,” says Pranay Rai of IMR, who says the long-term economic gain of building a clean reputation is more important.

The experience with both IMR and Manaslu (the agency raided in December) underscores important learning points. Employers are best placed to influence recruiter behaviour, but a big share of employers hiring Nepalis would prefer sourcing Nepali workers through recruiters like Manaslu rather than those with ethical standards.

The Ethics Practitioners Association of Nepal (EPAN), an umbrella organisation of recruiters committed to ethical recruitment, has not been able to attract a single employer. Job offers by HR departments of employers are often allocated based on kickbacks received. Employer HR visits to Kathmandu for interviews are often sponsored by recruiters who go overboard to lock in future demand and pass on the costs to the worker.

This unhealthy competition extends beyond borders to thousands of recruiters from the Subcontinent. The extent of unethical practices in the migrant labour industry was exposed during Covid-19 pandemic.

The Malaysian Government has been raiding its glove companies and exposing incidences of human rights abuse after the companies came to the global spotlight amid soaring profits during the pandemic. But pressure from third countries is still a rarity, while labour law enforcement in destination countries remains lax.

There are a number of examples of pressure from third countries that have led to improved working conditions, but it is also a reminder that obtaining a secure working environments is a tall order. Unless recruiters are seen as part of a larger transnational ecosystem involving multiple profit-motivated players engaged in unethical practices, Nepalis will have to continue to be content with the existing provisions.

Raids like the sting operation last month, are necessary but not sufficient for systemic changes. Embassies that have the proximity advantage with the destination country players need to be further strengthened. Labour agreements that could form the basis for influencing how migrants are treated abroad need to be implemented.

Ethical recruiters like IMR and members of EPAN have received no support from the government. As DOFE ramps up raids and suspends operations of fraudulent agents, it should also emphasise the good examples.

EPAN and IMR’s experience shows that pivoting to the ethical track requires additional resources and could entail short-term financial losses. Policies that make the system rewarding for ethical agents should be a government priority, and international organisations like the ILO (International Labour Organisation) and IOM (International Organisation for Migration) that have expertise in this area and the global reach need to be leveraged.

The ILO, for instance, has piloted a project promoting ethical recruitment of Nepali workers in Jordanian garment factories.

With vested interest groups, political interference, regulatory loopholes and profits at the cost of the needy, it is difficult to picture professionalism and ethical beheaviour. But crossborder intermediation services will remain in demand given the attraction for overseas jobs, since 90% of recruitment is driven by recruiters.

Perhaps the disproportionate focus on just the recruitment costs in Nepal’s migration governance is because it is often the root to subsequent vulnerabilities faced by migrants, and there is some semblance of control as the transaction takes place within Nepal’s jurisdiction. But salaries, associated benefits, and how they are treated all affect the wellbeing of a migrant worker.

Sting operations are good examples to help curb fraudulent activities, particularly as the shrinkage in job opportunities due to Covid-19 heightens the risks of unethical practices. Lack of employment opportunities has spurred unhealthier competition among recruiters and more desperate migrants. But a government reward system that recognises and supports pioneer recruiters opting the ethical route is also needed.

The migrants at the airport last week said they learnt about IMR through word of mouth and Facebook. They were lucky to land these jobs without paying fees because all overseas vacancies in Nepal are posted as ‘no cost’ in the public domain.

The good players in the industry need to be publicly recognised, provided training opportunities and other incentives that will help them attract both employers and migrants. Only then can they distinguish themselves from the lot, build credibility and lead the way.

Upasana Khadka writes this column Labour Mobility every month in Nepali Times analysing trends affecting Nepal’s workers abroad.

Upasana Khadka