Page last updated at 23:19 GMT, Sunday, 17 May 2009 00:19 UK

On the trail of rogue recruiters

By Kenneth Macdonald
BBC Scotland Special Correspondent

Computer keyboard
Rogue agencies have been breaking the law in order to boost business

A BBC Radio Scotland investigation has found how some rogue recruitment agencies are using dirty and illegal tricks to boost business.

The recruitment industry already turns over £27bn a year, and the UK Government says the vast majority of agencies are honest and responsible.

Based in Stirling, Contract Scotland is one such agency with nothing to hide.

It specialises in getting the right clients into the right jobs in civil engineering and construction.

But when director Emma Watts goes online to see what some of her less scrupulous competitors are up to, it's not hard to find cause for concern.

"You'll see ... jobs advertised in the sector that we're in," she said.

"I could go through half of those and tell you that they're purely manufactured. They don't exist at all."

One former recruitment agency employee called Todd left the industry in disgust at such rogue tactics.

I felt very much like I was manipulating people
Todd
Former agency worker

He said at the end of each working day he'd put a series of adverts on recruiting websites for jobs that weren't there.

"You'd come in in the morning and there'd be 30 or 40 CVs waiting for you ... you'd get their CVs into the database," he said.

"You were told 'don't get caught doing that'."

Todd left the industry because he found these practices so underhand.

He said: "I felt very much like I was manipulating people.

"I'd gained their trust and obviously they were looking for something from you that you're saying you're going to give them and you have no intention - basically it's a big fat lie."

Another source who still works in the industry and wants to remain anonymous told us it was a far from unusual practice.

But why advertise non-existent jobs?

When I do get through on a call they transfer me to somebody else, who then transfers me to somebody else
Charlie
Job hunter

"It would be for the purpose of attracting great candidates who they could then 'sell on' speculatively to a number of clients," he said.

And what of the people who'd applied in good faith for a job that wasn't there?

"They go into a black hole," he said.

"They'd probably receive an auto-generated e-mail to say thank you for your application, then never hear anything again."

Another trick is for one agency to muscle in on another's business by simply stealing its job adverts.

Ian Sinclair, a Greenock-based IT contractor who gets much of his work through agencies, said that can be easy to spot as some spelling mistakes are simply cut and pasted from one advert to the next.

But he was also the victim of another scam.

He said: "One agency was trying to recruit me for a job - when I was already in the post doing the job they were trying to recruit me for."

Pat McFadden
The employment relations minister defended the agency inspection system

Ian told them there was no vacancy.

Fake jobs and stolen adverts are just two of the sharp practices uncovered by The Investigation.

They may appear to be victimless scams but industry professionals warn they can shatter a job hunter's already fragile confidence.

Charlie is trying to find a job after leaving her previous post in human relations and has copied her CV to several agencies.

After several months on the market she's actually growing more hopeful.

But she says some agencies didn't help.

'Reputable job'

"Two months ago things were pretty desperate and my confidence was extremely low," she said.

"I think I did spend a couple of weeks just not really knowing what I was going to do.

"I've had to phone, and then I've had to phone again, and then I've had to e-mail again.

"When I do get through on a call they transfer me to somebody else, who then transfers me to somebody else.

"I seem to go round in a circle."

So who's looking out for the rogue recruiters?

The agency industry has a trade body called the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC).

It offers training and sets standards.

But while the REC has the power to expel miscreant members, agencies don't need to join in the first place.

'Not fair'

The Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform oversees the industry from Whitehall.

It has just 24 government inspectors to police more than 16,000 agencies across the UK.

But Minister of State for Employment Relations Pat McFadden rejected any suggestion that may be inadequate.

"Most agencies do a good, reputable job," he said.

"But where there are rogue agencies we don't want to see that for two very good reasons.

"It's unfair on the workers involved to be exploited at work. It's also not fair on the other, reputable agencies that are out there.

"People don't want to be facing competition that's illegal."

Complaints about an employment or recruitment agency can be made by e-mailing the government's inspectorate at eas@berr.gsi.gov.uk or by calling 0845 955 5105.

The Investigation: Employment Agencies is on BBC Radio Scotland at 0900 BST on Monday 18 May.



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