When the global Covid-19 pandemic was confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11 March 2020, most of us did not anticipate the scale of change on its way. Its structural impact on society, the private sector and the scale of governments’ interventions has been unprecedented.

The pandemic has caused severe disruption to global supply chains, particularly those that rely on migrant, agency and seasonal workers. It has exacerbated risks to these already vulnerable workers, with many losing their jobs, and migrant workers have been particularly exposed. Millions have been stuck in destination countries with no income or being forced to cover repatriation fees to return home. Upon return, many received limited or no social security support.

The pandemic has also increased the vulnerability of workers and businesses to poor recruitment and labour supply practices. In some sectors, recruitment has all but stopped. But in others, the pandemic has encouraged unethical recruitment practices to thrive.

Retailers, suppliers and recruitment businesses have shared insights with the Responsible Recruitment Toolkit (RTT) and The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) on the realities of labour recruitment practices as Covid-19 causes such disruption. It has been noted that recruitment costs have escalated, increasing the likelihood of such costs being passed on to workers by recruitment agencies seeking to survive the economic chaos caused by the pandemic.

No business can fully prepare for an unexpected global pandemic. However, anecdotally, we’ve seen that businesses with established ethical and professional recruitment practices were better prepared to react to a rapidly changing global crisis. These businesses were better equipped to update their policies, adapt to new recruitment procedures and Covid-safe working practices, and communicate these changes to their workforces. They were also able to conduct appropriate due diligence on new labour providers and recruiters to ensure workers and their businesses were protected.

We believe this experience underlines the importance of adopting a responsible recruitment strategy to protect workers, recruiters and their clients in global supply chains. We must not lose sight of this because, at the very least, the pandemic is not yet over. This involves operating a sustainable commercial model where the cost of recruitment is covered by the client, not the worker; putting effective management systems in place; maintaining a transparent labour supply chain with effective supply chain partnerships; and protecting workers’ rights and treating them as individuals. The CGF has been an advocate for this type of model for years as it advances the implementation of its Priority Industry Principles against forced labour. This is echoed through the RTT’s holistic definition of “responsible recruitment” which goes beyond the critical issue of recruitment fees to look at the various standards and pillars that make up the ethical and professional recruitment and supply of workers.  

A proliferation of social media memes claiming we should “cancel 2020” may offer some light relief in a difficult time, but conversely, businesses should recognise this global shock as an opportunity to build back better, and action should indeed follow as a result. Embedding a responsible recruitment strategy can help retailers, brands and their supply bases become more resilient, ethical and responsive to changing circumstances—circumstances for which, as 2020 has shown, we must do our best to prepare.

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