Labour intermediaries play a crucial role in the migration cycle by mediating between employers and workers. Typologies include recruiting agents, employment agencies, not for profit and for profit enterprises, including workers’ cooperatives, digital platforms and or social networks (ILO 2018) . They are accountable for matching the skills of the migrant workers to the skills required by Foreign Employers (FEs), recruitment and even training/skilling as per employment opportunities in destination countries. They often operate alone or sometimes in tandem with other intermediaries, and can operate within or across sectors. Consequently, the role of labour intermediaries is crucial in linking migrant workers with employment opportunities and in ensuring decent working conditions for migrant workers when regulated (IOM 2019).
Further, labour intermediaries can enhance the migrant workers’ ability to navigate complex and volatile labour markets. For some, mediated employment, recruitment and work practices mean greater career progression and profit-making ability. Though, if unregulated, for many others, it could mean increased precarity, vulnerability and insecurity. The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted economic activity and the prolonged strain on migration movement has led to around 50 percent of Recruitment Agencies (RAs) on the verge of shutting their business.
Under the broad umbrella of labour intermediaries, RAs are an important segment in India, with the bulk of blue-collar worker mobility being facilitated by them. The 1983 Emigration Act establishes procedures for regulating RAs responsible for recruiting and sending migrant workers abroad. RAs hence must have a valid certificate (license) granted by the Protector of Emigrants to operate for an initial period of five years. The unregistered agency names are also published online to avoid frauds and preclude the possibility of cheating of migrant workers aspiring to go abroad. Unregistered RAs by virtue of operating out of the legislative framework can indulge in illegalities increasing the risk factor for vulnerable migrants.
These RAs also face various challenges in operationalizing through trans-national networks that involve multiple players. Structural limitations with majority of the RAs located in urban spaces include reliance on the services of sub-agents and individual touts for reaching out to migrant workers in remote areas (Rajan et. al 2010). Additionally, migration induced by social networks primarily through relatives and friends can also involve other players that can influence vulnerable migrants agree to unscrupulous and deceptive work contracts.
To facilitate an assessment of the practices of these labour intermediaries, the Ministry of External Affairs through its eMigrate system is implementing ‘rating mechanisms’ under the powers conferred to the PoE/PGE . Rating mechanisms have been found useful to not only assess the practice and role of RAs, but also enables the outcomes of the assessment in the form of rating or ranking. India’s new emigration bill therefore anticipates incentives for good performance alongside penalties for poor performance, including agencies losing their licenses.
In light of the issues highlighted in the foregoing paras, it is important to discuss the issues and challenges pertaining to the role of labour intermediaries or the ‘middle men’ that facilitate migrant mobility. Furthermore, focusing on the intermediaries allows for a conceptualization of the infrastructure that actualizes mobility. The India Centre for Migration (ICM) is therefore organizing a virtual panel discussion on the ‘Role of Labour Intermediaries in Migration: Issues and Challenges’ on 27 August 2020 from 1500 to 1630 hrs. The discussion aims to deliberate (but will not be limited to) the following issues-