5 March 2020: Issara Institute releases five-year assessment of impact and trends in worker voice and responsible sourcing.

Issara has been working on human rights conditions across the Southeast Asian supply chains of many global buyers and industries over the past 5 years.  Some things have changed...some things have not.  What does the picture really look like on the ground, for workers, recruiters, and employers/suppliers?

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can best be understood within our behaviour change-based theory of change.  It recognizes that there are only 3 key actors directly involved in the process of labour exploitation and human trafficking: 

  1. Those being exploited (jobseekers and workers),

  2. Those doing the exploiting (recruiters and employers), and

  3. Those mandated to stop the exploitation (the duty bearers - government and business).

Issara's goal is to eliminate labour exploitation, forced labour, and human trafficking, and our interventions are designed to change the behaviours of these 3 key actors directly, towards this goal.  Our interventions fall under 3 objectives:

  1. Worker voice and empowerment: Jobseekers and workers actively identify and avoid exploitation.

  2. Transforming supply chains:  Recruiters and employers stop exploiting jobseekers and workers.

  3. Transforming supply chains:  Global buyers and government actively stop exploitation and trafficking, within their scope of responsibility.


Issara's behaviour change-based theory of change and focus on empowering workers and transforming supply chains have shown unprecedented results. 

Issara's worker voice channels operate at a scale and effectiveness that is not paralleled in this space anywhere in the world - receiving over 85,000 calls and messages in 2019 alone, covering nearly 200,000 workers through Inclusive Labour Monitoring (ILM).  Workers are now more likely to go to registered recruiters rather than informal brokers, are demonstrating increased knowledge of rights and laws, and are organizing to file cases against exploitative recruiters and file grievances directly with employers.  And, improved capacity and behaviour from recruiters and employers provides a more receptive environment for worker voice and worker power, allowing Issara to support the remediation of nearly 20,000 cases of forced labour in the last five years.


We are driving transformational change throughout the entire recruitment system. 

Issara works with over 128 recruitment actors, whereas many initiatives operate with just a few hand-picked partners, sometimes even limited to single industries.  Connecting recruiters with grassroots organization and developing practical, behaviour change-focused professionalization programs for recruiters were Issara innovations that have demonstrated impressive results down to the first mile, displacing informal brokers and increasing professionalization of the recruitment system.  Issara successfully built global knowledge of the actual picture of recruitment and costs - from the disproportionate power of destination-side recruitment agencies and employers, to the need for worker voice for a true picture of recruitment conditions - and advanced discussions through multi-stakeholder events and research.  The Issara team has also measured and documented real change: reduced fees to job seekers, increased transparency, improved remediation, and more empowered job seekers.


However, there is a long way to go. 

The existing government systems for labour recruitment and workplace regulation in much of Southeast Asia fall far short in maintaining the recruitment and working conditions expected/required by most corporate codes of conduct.  And, due diligence systems where global business, employers, recruiters, government, audit and audit-plus service providers, and others do not safeguard workers and seek primarily risk mitigation rather than appropriate remediation outcomes continue to inhibit progress.  Willingness to change certain industry practices seems to follow the global spotlight, there is continued defensiveness for many global buyers and suppliers who have undertaken other efforts and routinely pass audits, and global commitments often stand in for real action.

The lesson learned is that tools and efforts need to fully engage local actors in a trusted, long-term way, and have safe, responsive pathways to address the grievances of vulnerable workers.  These are necessary for uptake; for the collection of accurate and reliable information; for any measurable effectiveness for job seekers, recruiters, employers, or buyers; and, for sustainability.


Daw Thi Thi Thein Golden Royal Mandalay.

Daw Thi Thi Thein, Director,

Golden Royal Mandalay

There is now increased transparency in the recruitment process.  By joining hands with civil society in raising awareness, we agencies have learned the difficulties that job seekers and communities are facing on the ground, and the efforts that civil society are making.  I strongly believe that, together, we will be able to address the issue of people being deceived to pay high fees, and we will gain trust from job seekers and workers.  This will make ethical recruitment possible.

Daw Moe Moe Aung Rattanamahal Ambassador

Ma Moe Moe Aung, Rattanamahal Golden Dreams Ambassador,

Bago Region

In the past, we were having difficulty making calls to recruitment agencies.  Now I'm so glad to see that the agencies are starting to come to the grassroots...so that people in our villages have an opportunity to ask questions and clarify things.  Agencies can also learn what is happening on the ground and understand the difficulties.  Otherwise, the responsible people in these agencies just make decisions based on what brokers tell them.  We do not need brokers as we can contact recruitment agencies directly.  However, we need this to happen on a bigger scale.

Daw Thet Thet Aung Future Light Center.j

Daw Thet Thet Aung, Future Light Center (grassroots organization)

Engagement between civil society and recruitment agencies has been beneficial because as we conducted awareness raising together, civil society delivers safe migration messages while the recruitment agencies share the recruitment process and their roles, so that people can learn who is doing what, and broaden their knowledge.  Communities and job seekers having direct contact with recruitment agencies has helped them to trust the agencies so that they will dare to contact the agencies directly.