Recent developments have seen UK based Security Firm G4S accused of taking fees from workers in exchange for securing roles within their Middle East operations1. The practice, which is said to operate via recruitment agencies targeting migrant workers in the region, has been described as reaching into the millions in fees paid. The conduct described of course amounts to modern slavery. G4S have stated previously that “Any human rights abuse is completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated under any circumstances… G4S is committed to the highest standards to ensure that migrant workers are treated with respect and dignity. We are working to raise global standards across the industry with all our partners.”2
The latest article by the Guardian begs the question of what protections are afforded to workers to in the UK and whether such practices are in operation by UK companies both in the UK and further afield.
The practice of recruitment fees has been well documented in the Middle East, most notably in Qatar with an influx of migrant workers to undertake the vast engineering projects ahead of the 2022 Football World Cup.
The function of the recruitment fees may work in various manners. There may be an upfront cost in order to secure employment. A potential worker may be contacted advising that a job is available, but will be offered elsewhere unless they meet a cost to lock in the job. This would primarily function through a recruitment agency who are hired to locate potential workers. These recruitment agents will thereafter receive a fee once the worker begins employment. The recruitment agency therefore receives double payment for securing a person for a position.
An alternative means of operation would be for the company itself to carry out the practice directly. This may be by passing on the cost of the recruitment to the employee. This may then be deducted from their wages. To ensure payment, a migrant workers passport may be retained by the company to ensure they cannot return home without making payment. This will result in debt bondage and modern slavery.
The migrant workers will typically come from poorer countries where they travel abroad leaving behind their families in the hope of better pay. They are in turn exploited due to their vulnerable position.
Whilst G4S are not directly involved in the collection of additional fees, former employees have confirmed employees of G4S were well aware of the practices. A potential worker would be interviewed by an employee of G4S, with a job offer thereafter being communicated through the recruitment agency. The recruitment agency would then make a condition of the employment being offered that the potential worker pay the cost of their services and other related costs. The recent article of Pete Pattisson of the Guardian cites confirmation of workers of G4S being aware of the practice3.
Modern Slavery is defined by the National crime Agency as “the recruitment, movement, harbouring or receiving of children, women or men through the use of force, coercion, abuse of vulnerability, deception or other means for the purpose of exploitation.”4
There is strict legislation against modern slavery practices within the UK, with the Modern Slavery Act 20155, through which it is a criminal act. Whilst this article will not examine the legislation in any depth, the main thrust of the Act is to prohibit against modern slavery practices extension to sexual exploitation, servitude and compulsory labour.
Whilst recruitment fees do not amount to modern slavery, it has been apparent in other jurisdictions that it can lead to debt bondage and the restriction of liberty. The law is clear on what a recruitment agency can and cannot charge to a potential worker. An employment agency must not charge a potential worker a fee for finding you work or trying to find that person work. However, the agency may charge for other services including, but not limited to, prerequisite training, preparation of a suitable CV, accommodation, transport and uniform.
If a recruitment agency wishes to charge a potential worker for certain services, they must provide a full written account of the fees and any conditions attached prior to collecting that charge. They additionally must outline the right to cancel such services. Such charges must not also be a condition of finding and securing work.
The time frame for cancellation is 10 working days’ written notice to the agency to cancel living accommodation, and five working days’ for all other services.
A dispute can be raised directly with ACAS if a person believes that they have been unfairly charged by a recruitment agency or that the recruitment agency fails to issue a refund despite their compliance with the above timeframes.
There has previously been criticism levelled at UK companies such as Capita and FDM who operate derisory practices of bonding workers through inadequate training with associated inflated costs. The training would be mandatory in order to secure employment with a company hiring via FDM or Capita.
The worker would then be expected to attend their offices on a full time basis for no or little pay until they were selected by a company to work for them.
The worker would be unable to extricate from the situation for a period of two years. If the worker left the arrangement early, they would become liable for thousands of pounds allegedly for the costs for the training provided.
The absurdity of the practice can be seen in the cost for the training involved. A six week IT course, with as many as 30 other workers, can result in exit-fees totalling £20,0006.
The exploitation would continue if a worker secured a job through these companies. FDM or Capita would enjoy a percentage of the worker’s wages for a period of up to two years.
The International Labour Office defines forced labour to include “situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt.7” The similarities between the definition of forced labour and the practices of Capita and FDM are stark.
Felicity Gerry QC, as part of the Good Law Project, noted that she has seen evidence “from FDM’s Chief Operating Office that the ‘training fee’ represents, in part, the profit FDM expects to make during the indenture period”8.
Whilst the Modern Slavery Act 2015 can be said to effectively tackle individual or group activities, it is ineffective in dealing with corporate modern slavery. UK workers enjoy certain protections form recruitment fees however there still exists a culture of exploitation within noted large corporations who target university graduates with the promise of potential work but instead treat workers as property of the company rather than as human beings.