January 21, 2008
It is encouraging that representatives from countries that send and receive migrant workers will sit at the same table. To make the talks successful, officials must tackle badly flawed immigration policies and gaps in labor laws that expose migrants to abuse.
Nisha Varia, senior researcher for the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch

(Abu Dhabi) - When labor ministers from 22 Asian and Middle Eastern countries meet in Abu Dhabi this week to discuss Asian contract migrant workers, they should address widespread violations of migrant workers’ rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

Both labor-sending and labor-receiving countries benefit from migration, but abuse of workers’ rights remains rampant. These abuses include recruitment-related deception, unpaid wages, confiscation of passports, and, in some instances, physical violence.

On January 21 and 22, the United Arab Emirates will host the labor ministers in the latest round of the Colombo Process, a series of regional consultative meetings of government officials focused on issues relating to Asian contract migrant workers. On January 23 and 24, these discussions will continue in the Gulf Forum on Temporary Contractual Labor. This is the first time a labor-receiving country is hosting the Colombo Process.

“It is encouraging that representatives from countries that send and receive migrant workers will sit at the same table,” said Nisha Varia, senior researcher for the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. “To make the talks successful, officials must tackle badly flawed immigration policies and gaps in labor laws that expose migrants to abuse.”

Tens of millions of Asian men and women work as fixed-contract migrant workers in both Asia and the Middle East, typically in domestic work, construction, manufacturing and agriculture. These workers meet the very high demand for cheap labor in countries such as Saudi Arabia, and send home billions of dollars in remittances to their home countries. For example, Indians living abroad sent home US$24.6 billion in fiscal year 2006. In Sri Lanka, remittances are the second-highest source of foreign exchange.

However, poorly monitored labor recruitment agencies may often overcharge migrants, leaving them heavily indebted. Many labor-receiving countries tie migrant visas to their employers, making it all but impossible to switch employers when they experience abuse. These countries also exclude domestic workers from the labor laws, leaving them open to abuse with few avenues for redress.

“Governments should establish regional minimum standards to avoid an unhealthy race to the bottom in labor conditions,” said Varia. “Greater cooperation is essential on a number of fronts, including creating mutually respected employment contracts and mechanisms to enforce them.”

“Too often, workers sign one contract in their home country, and migrate to find they have to sign a new contract with lower wages and worse labor conditions,” Varia explained.

On December 18, International Migrants’ Day, networks and organizations representing hundreds of migrants’ rights groups, women’s rights groups, and human rights groups across Asia, including Human Rights Watch, issued a letter to governments participating in the Colombo process, calling on them to implement key reforms. These include the following:

  • Establish and enforce equal protection for domestic workers under labor laws. This includes provisions for at least one day off per week, limits to working hours, overtime pay, and other benefits. Outlining provisions for labor conditions through specialized employment contracts for domestic workers are not a substitute for equal protection under the law.
  • Reform of the kafala (“sponsorship”) visa system. Employment visas that tie workers to their employers make it difficult for workers to change employers, even in cases of abuse, and sometimes require them to obtain their employer’s consent before leaving the country. Workers’ visas should not be linked to employers.
  • Implement stronger monitoring of labor-recruitment agencies. Both sending and receiving countries should more rigorously regulate, monitor, and enforce minimum standards for labor-recruitment agencies. Governments should set clear standards for recruitment fees or eliminate these fees completely.
  • Ensure that migrants have access to justice and support services. Migrants accused of committing crimes must have access to interpreters or legal aid. Migrants who suffer abuse should have access to shelter, legal aid, medical care, and temporary residence status. Governments should ensure speedy and transparent mechanisms to resolve wage disputes, and they must prosecute cases of abuse against migrants through the criminal justice system.

The labor-sending countries attending the Colombo Process include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. The countries of destination include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Yemen, as well as Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore.