Migrant Labor

Workers are on the move, often into uncertain and potentially exploitative labor.

Shifts in demographic and economic patterns are pushing workers to cross borders for jobs in ever increasing numbers. Migrants often leave their home communities due to extreme poverty and face exploitation as they search for work in unfamiliar terrain. They are commonly subject to subcontracting schemes and precarious jobs in the informal economy. They make vital economic contributions to both their host countries and countries of origin, but confront a dire lack of workplace protection and social security.

The fear of arrest and deportation prevents many migrant workers from being able to speak out about labor rights abuses because they may be undocumented, or dependent on their employer for documentation that allows them to stay legally. Unions and other rights activists are documenting cases around the globe where employers handle legitimate complaints about working conditions not by sitting down with workers, but calling the police to have them arrested. As the pace of labor movement across borders quickens, we must put in place the safeguards needed to ensure migrant workers are afforded equal treatment under the law and pathways for regularized, non-temporary employment.

ILRF is doing just that, working with grassroots organizations in migrant worker communities to help them provide some level of protection in an unstable environment. We also advocate at the national and international levels for more just, humane immigration practices that take into account the needs of migrant workers and ensure their rights are respected. Finally, we document cases of human trafficking, the dark side of our increasingly fluid movement of labor across borders, and hold multinational companies accountable for profiting from trafficking in their supply chains.

Corporations are reaping the benefits of a flexible, global labor system and passing the significant economic and social costs to workers.

We are living in a time of unprecedented mobility. The United Nations estimates that 232 million people, more than 3% of the world’s population, live outside the country of their citizenship. According to the ILO, 120 million of these (most of the working-age population) are migrant workers in their new country of residence. And these numbers only include international migration. Unprecedented numbers of people are moving internally, from rural areas to cities, in search of work. In China alone, there are 262 million such internal migrants, and that number increases by about 4% per year.

A number of economic and demographic factors are pushing these trends. Birth rates have fallen significantly in most developed countries, making it more difficult to fill so-called “3D” (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) jobs in industries such as agriculture, food-processing, manufacturing, and domestic work. Rapid industrialization in some developing countries has also spurred an immediate need for large work forces in areas like construction, natural resource extraction, and domestic work. Countries with large populations and struggling economies have discovered that workers who go abroad to fill these jobs send large amounts of money back to their families, and these remittances have come to make up a significant portion of GDP for a number of countries. It is not only low-skilled labor, however, that is subject to these trends. By 2020, there will be an estimated global shortfall of 85 million workers in high-skilled, technical work, and competition will be high for those workers, wherever they come from.

Unfortunately, protections for migrant workers have not expanded as rapidly as has the demand. Most migrant workers, even many internal migrants, are required to have special documents to legally live and work, and these documents often bind the worker to their employer, making it difficult to change jobs or find a new employer. Most receiving countries have established temporary migrant worker programs, which divide families and saddle workers with the cost of document renewal. Migrant workers frequently work in sectors with weak union representation, and are often barred from organizing unions altogether, weakening their voice on the job. Together, these conditions create significant barriers to migrant workers being able to assert their rights. Workers who speak up may find themselves arrested or deported for doing so.  

Migrant workers are often “hired” by recruiters or labor brokers, who often continue to extract payment long after the worker is placed with their employer. These recruiters are rarely regulated and operate complex, global networks in selling labor that can cross the line into selling people into modern-day slavery. In many instances, recruiters use deception, confiscation of travel documents, changes in the terms of contracts, and overwhelming debt at high interest rates to trap workers and continue making money off of them. Workers often pay very high fees to recruiters to find work and must enter their new employment in a form of debt bondage. Meanwhile, employers typically pay nothing to receive the workers, and in some cases are even given free trips for “recruitment fairs” to exotic destinations, all of which is ultimately paid for by the workers themselves.

There are international efforts to improve the situation. The United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families (ICMW) in 1990, and the International Labor Organization has codified two conventions related to migrant workers: No. 97 concerning Migration for Employment and No. 143 concerning Migrations in Abusive Conditions and the Promotion of Equality of Opportunity and Treatment of Migrant Workers. However, these conventions are not widely-ratified and many countries continue to maintain domestic laws that place migrant workers at risk of being exploited by unscrupulous labor brokers or employers.

 

Policies must be developed, adopted and enforced that empower migrant workers to stand up for their rights in the workplace.

In partnership with local and international unions, ILRF engages in a variety of advocacy efforts and grassroots initiatives to end the exploitation of migrant workers worldwide. We believe in increased legal protections for migrant workers in the United States and abroad, and also support migrant worker organizations trying to organize vulnerable worker communities.

The United Nation’s Migrant Worker Convention is a good start toward the changes we need to protect migrant workers. It should be ratified by all countries either sending or receiving significant numbers of migrant workers, and all countries should strive to align their immigration policies with the Convention. Importantly, it codifies fundamental human rights, including the right to join a union and to due process of law, to all workers regardless of legal status. It also guarantees workers the right to all information regarding their rights in the receiving country and the conditions of employment, an important provision for preventing human trafficking.

But the Convention does not go far enough. Most critically, it does not address the role of labor recruiters and employment agencies. Registering and regulating recruiters is one of the most significant steps that must be taken to end abuse of migrant workers. Additionally, international and national laws must be changed so workers are not expected to pay fees for recruitment services. Employers wishing to use private recruitment services must pay for those services as part of the cost of hiring workers from abroad. Departments of labor in both sending and receiving countries should also play a larger role in ensuring workers moving abroad for work are doing so for legitimate job opportunities and that they have mechanisms in place for reporting wage theft, denial of benefits, document confiscation and other illegal practices, as well as protections for workers who speak out.

 

ILRF has ongoing initiatives to support migrant workers.

Thailand: Many workers in the Thai fishing industry are migrants from Myanmar, including a significant portion of employees at Narong Seafood, a shrimp processing company that supplies Wal-Mart. Narong has been accused of wage theft, ineffective auditing, and child labor. Together with the union Warehouse Workers United, ILRF released the research report “The Walmart Effect: Child and Worker Rights Violations at Narong Seafood,” and calls on ILO to strengthen monitoring in the industry. News coverage can be found here.

China: China’s export factories employ millions of internal migrant workers. Due to a lack of enforced legal protections, Chinese migrant workers are subject to various forms of abuse. ILRF’s 2010 publication “The Impact of China’s Labor Contract Law on Workers” addresses this in part.

 

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