Justice elusive for migrant workers in Southeast Asia

Posted on July 28, 2017

MIGRANT workers continue to face major obstacles to lodging and resolving complaints, the International Labor Organization (ILO) said following a new study on access to justice for migrant workers in Southeast Asia.

In a statement issued in Bangkok, the ILO said the report, intended to accompany the World Day against Trafficking in Persons on July 30, found a shortage of effective channels for migrants to report abuses and cases of forced labor and human trafficking.

“Migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation is exacerbated by the absence of fair, efficient and accessible means to resolve grievances when they occur,” Ben Harkins, Technical Officer for the ILO TRIANGLE in ASEAN program and lead author of the report, was quoted as saying.

The study is based on complaints data gathered by Migrant Worker Resource Centres (MRCs) from 2011 to 2015. Detailed information on over 1,000 cases involving more than 7,000 migrant workers was documented in Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

The results show that some progress has been achieved in increasing access to justice for migrant workers in recent years. Remedies awarded to migrants in the cases resolved by MRCs included $1.62 million in compensation, the ILO said.

In spite of the improvements made, migrant workers continue to face major obstacles to lodging and resolving complaints in all of the locations studied.

In countries of origin, only blatant violations of migrants’ rights are typically rectified, such as collecting recruitment and documentation fees for non-existent jobs. Other forms of abuse that are known to be widespread, including overcharging migrant workers on recruitment fees and misrepresenting the terms of employment, continue to go unchallenged, it said.

The situation in destination countries is similar, though compounded by fears of retaliation, employer-tied visas and work permits and language barriers. As a result, most migrant workers do not risk making a complaint unless their livelihoods or basic dignity as human beings are clearly threatened. It is well-understood by migrants that lodging a grievance is likely to mean the end of their employment, and therefore long-term improvements to wages and working conditions are currently out of reach.

Although compensation is awarded for abuse of migrant workers, the amounts are often far from satisfactory for complainants.

“Most of the ‘compensation’ that was paid to migrant workers in the complaint cases we analyzed was just a portion of the money that was due to them in unpaid wages and not actually compensatory for harm suffered,” Mr. Harkins said.

Stark differences were also found between women and men in access to justice for labor rights abuses. Due to the informal and unrecognized nature of much of women’s migration and employment within the region, the already limited opportunity that men have to voice their grievances is reduced significantly. Despite targeted efforts to reach women migrants in all of the countries where MRCs operate, the results suggest that the opportunity to lodge complaints remains deeply inequitable in many areas.

The study highlights the critical role played by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and unions in offering an access point for migrant workers to seek redress. “These organizations provide the doorway that most migrants walk through when they need assistance,” Mr. Harkins said.

For women migrants, the overwhelming preference for NGO services reveals their importance in reducing the gender gap in access to justice. Over 80% of the women assisted in resolving their complaints went to MRCs managed by local NGOs.

The study also found substantial and largely unmet demand for fair and responsive remedies. Most migrant workers who are faced with situations of exploitation and abuse seek practical resolutions, such as disbursement of unpaid wages, deployment to destination countries and return of identification documents.

“It is clear that these demands are not adequately met through enforcement of labor and human trafficking laws currently and that greater efforts are needed to ensure that migrant workers are provided with just remedies,” Mr. Harkins said.