Fair Labor in the Middle East

Agility’s fair labor program in the Middle East was a groundbreaking initiative more than 10 years ago and has helped drive worker protections worldwide. 

More than a decade ago, Agility began taking aggressive steps to protect the rights of drivers, warehouse employees and other workers who migrated in order to get jobs.

Agility is the largest logistics company in the Middle East, an area where third-country nationals have historically been vulnerable to exploitation by recruiters and to abuses on the job.

Fair labor in the supply  chain

While international agencies have moved to promote fair labor practices and supply chain transparency, often after prodding by non-governmental watchdog groups, Agility has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure worker protections and call on other businesses in the region to do the same.

Agility’s initiative for fair labor

One of Agility’s first steps was ensuring a basic living wage for migrant workers. Agility also implemented procedures to prevent common labor abuses, like confiscation of passports, withholding of pay and travel restrictions. Agility’s approach to identifying and correcting fair labor practices has been in use since 2009. Since 2011, Agility has been training all levels classes of employees about those standards.

Agility’s commitment to fair labor goes all the way to the top. The company’s fair labor program is sponsored by Agility CEO Tarek Sultan, who receives regular updates on its progress from the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) team. “Agility is committed to providing an environment where employees’ human rights are both respected and protected. We have high standards on fair labor; it’s an essential part of the ‘Agility Way’ of doing business,” Sultan said.

The fair labor program

Agility created its fair labor program voluntarily – not in response to government or customer mandates – because the company believes in protecting its employees and contract workers. Agility isn’t winning business because it has a toptier fair labor program, but it could certainly lose business if those standards slipped, says Frank Clary, Agility’s CSR director.

Clary says the program is both a moral and legal imperative, and a company’s success in resolving fair labor issues hinges on its ability to discover them – and speak openly about correcting them.

Agility’s practices are evolving to ensure that all possible violations come to light. Agility rigorously enforces the fair labor policy with comprehensive monitoring and audits conducted by third parties. Geographic areas where the Agility workforce includes the most vulnerable population – migrant workers – get audited most frequently. The audit process includes random employee and vendor interviews, and tours of workspaces and housing. When any issue is identified, Agility prescribes corrective actions and issues timelines for achieving appropriate standards. In the case of critical issues, corrective actions are taken immediately. Customers requesting audits get the results directly.

The first phase of the Agility audit program was conducted in the Middle East, followed by roll-outs in Asia- Pacific. Ten years ago, when these audits began, many violations were discovered. Now, thanks to training programs, they have decreased.

Agility’s goal is to educate 100 percent of its workforce about the fair labor policy. The program has been conducted historically with on-site training sessions. The company is creating an online training program to reach a wider audience. There are two versions of the online program: a version designed to help employees understand their rights and learn how to report concerns, and a separate, more robust program directed at Human Resources professionals who will need to investigate those concerns.

Agility plans to share these training resources with other companies. “We want to engage to help the broader business community succeed in managing these issues,” Clary says.

Fair Labor preservation and safekeeping

There’s no quick solution to manage fair labor issues on a global scale, but every step forward helps. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) estimates there are 40.3 million people currently enslaved in the world, and the problem is most prevalent in “impoverished countries and [in] those with vulnerable minority communities.” Modern slavery exists primarily for financial reasons: it’s an economic crime, according to Kevin Bales, a professor of contemporary slavery at University of Nottingham in the UK. The International Labour Organization says that slavery generates $150 billion for traffickers annually. Even if companies have procedures in place to protect their workforce, how can they safeguard against unethical subcontractors who prioritize financial gain about fair labor?

Agility has taken a leadership role on the issue when it works with multinationals and government organizations in the Middle East. Working with Human Rights Watch, Agility learned how to engage engineering and construction companies in ways that prevent labor issues. The approach involves setting expectations upfront, writing contracts more carefully to demand fair labor standards, and insisting that subcontractors to open up for audits. Agility also has worked on fair labor with the World Economic Forum and Business for Social Responsibility, which has given Agility a platform to talk about the importance of the issue with others in the logistics industry.