Migrants’ Groups Call for Key Reforms on International Migrants Day
December 18, 2007
Cruel employers and unscrupulous middlemen are not the only reason Asian migrants face exploitation.
Nisha Varia, senior researcher for the Women’s Rights division of Human Rights Watch

(New York) - Governments in Asia and the Middle East must take stronger action to fight rampant abuse against migrant workers, several migrants’ and human rights groups said in a joint letter on the eve of December 18, International Migrants’ Day.

Tens of millions of Asian men and women work as fixed-contract migrants in both Asia and the Middle East, typically in domestic work, construction, manufacturing and agriculture. While many migrants are able to work and earn without hindrance, others confront serious abuses, such as deception about their working conditions, months or years of unpaid wages, or physical and psychological abuse.

“Cruel employers and unscrupulous middlemen are not the only reason Asian migrants face exploitation,” said Nisha Varia, senior researcher for the Women’s Rights division of Human Rights Watch. “Flawed immigration policies and gaps in labor laws expose migrants to trafficking, forced labor and other terrible abuses.”

Countries of employment such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and Singapore rely heavily on migrant labor, which comprises between 25 and 90 percent of their workforce. However, these countries typically tie migrants’ visas to their employers, making it all but impossible to switch employers when they confront abuse. These countries also exclude domestic workers from the labor laws, leaving them open to abuse with few avenues for redress.

“We have documented many cases of migrants receiving no pay after working backbreaking hours for months and even years in jobs that no one else wants,” said William Gois, regional coordinator for Migrant Forum in Asia, a regional network of migrants’ organizations. “Migrants often cannot escape abusive conditions because their employers confiscate their passports and immigration policies give employers the legal power to decide whether the worker can seek another job.”

Labor-sending countries have also not extended adequate protection to these workers. Countries of origin such as the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Indonesia benefit tremendously from migrants’ remittances. For example, Indians living abroad sent home US$24.6 billion in fiscal year 2006 and remittances are the second-highest source of foreign exchange in Sri Lanka.

The largely unregulated labor recruitment agencies in these countries often charge extortionate fees that leave migrants heavily indebted. Several governments have been reluctant to demand higher wages and better working conditions for fear that jobs will go to workers from other countries instead.

“Labor-sending countries need to stop making excuses about lack of bargaining power and instead stand up for their nationals’ rights,” said Nurul Qoiriah of the Asian Migrant Centre. “By working together to establish minimum standards, countries sending migrants abroad could help prevent a race to the bottom.”

On January 21 and 22, 2008, the United Arab Emirates will host the latest round of the “Colombo Process,” a series of regional consultative processes focused on Asian contract migrant workers. In their joint letter, migrants’ and human rights groups called on the 22 major labor-sending and receiving governments attending the meeting to implement four key reforms:

  • Equal protection for domestic workers under labor laws. This includes provisions for one day off per week, overtime pay, and other benefits. Standard contracts 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.
  • 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 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.