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Asia/Middle East: Increase Protections for Migrant Workers

Labor Ministers From 19 Countries Meet for Second ‘Abu Dhabi Dialogue’

(Manila) – Labor ministers from 19 Asian and Middle Eastern countries should endorse protections for migrant workers and increase dialogue with civil society, Migrant Forum Asia and Human Rights Watch said today. The ministers are meeting in Manila from April 17 to 19, 2012, as part of the second round of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, an inter-regional consultation between labor-sending countries and labor-receiving countries on contractual migrant workers.

The theme of the meeting is, “Sustaining Regional Cooperation Toward Improved Management of Labor Mobility in Asia.” Last week, organizers extended a few invitations to civil society representatives to observe some sessions but they will not be allowed to speak. Civil society will hold a parallel consultation process to discuss their recommendations for governments.

“Increased regional cooperation is essential for improving protection of migrant workers’ rights,” said William Gois, regional coordinator of Migrant Forum in Asia, a regional network of more than 200 migrants’ rights groups in Asia.“But as civil society, we want to know what is going on, we want to be part of the process, and we demand opportunities for genuine participation.”

The governments will discuss the draft for a “2012 Framework of Regional Collaboration of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue,” which would commit them to taking domestic, bilateral, and multilateral measures to increase the benefits of international labor migration. The draft is based on the input from the first dialogue and a meeting of senior officials in January. Preparatory documents for the conference include examples of best practices and recommendations on government oversight of four stages of migration: recruitment, employment abroad, preparation for return, and reintegration.

The current draft framework contains provisions that will help prevent abuse and foster greater benefits from migration. These include reducing recruitment costs, developing standard employment contracts, and making recruiting agencies responsible for the activities of local-level labor brokers. The draft also recommends pre-departure and post-arrival information seminars for migrant workers and government action to inspect workplaces and enforce labor laws.

The draft framework also calls on governments to enhance workers’ skills and certifications, improve mechanisms for balancing labor supply and demand, and recognize the value of experience gained abroad. Finally, it recommends provision of safe, affordable transit home and research on helping migrant workers to save money.

“The draft framework contains many positive elements that could help reduce recruitment-related exploitation and workplace abuse of contractual migrant workers,” said Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But it should also call on governments to revise labor laws and immigration policies that contribute to abuse, especially the exclusion of domestic workers from labor codes and sponsorship systems that link a worker’s residency to his or her employer.”

Civil society groups representing migrants’ organizations, nongovernmental organizations, faith-based-groups, and trade unions across Asia will hold a parallel process. They will discuss recommendations for reforms to the sponsorship system, standardized contracts with comprehensive labor protections for migrant domestic workers, and proposals for a reference wage as an alternative to a minimum wage. They will also discuss the draft framework for regional cooperation.

Migrant workers play a key economic role. They fill labor demands in host countries and provide much-needed income for their own countries. In 2011, the World Bank estimates, Asian migrants sent home US$191 billion in remittances. Gulf countries in particular rely heavily on Asian contract labor; for example, there is approximately one migrant domestic worker for every two Kuwaiti citizens. Migrants from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have provided the labor for construction booms in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

But many migrants are at high risk of abuse, the groups said. Domestic workers are excluded from basic labor protections such as a weekly rest day and limits to working hours. Many migrants have limited information about their rights and face abuses such as deception about their jobs, heavy debt burdens from excessive recruitment fees, unpaid wages, and hazardous work conditions. Limited access to redress means that some get trapped in situations of forced labor and trafficking.

“Governments in the Abu Dhabi Dialogue should ensure that the framework for regional cooperation incorporates full protection of migrant workers’ human rights,” said Ellene Sana, executive director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy, a Philippine-based migrants’ rights group.  “They should also develop a concrete action plan with benchmarks to monitor their progress.”

The groups called on participating governments to ratify and implement international labor and human rights standards such as ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

Labor-sending countries in the Abu Dhabi Dialogue include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. Labor-receiving countries include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea will participate as observers. The first round of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue was hosted by the United Arab Emirates in 2008 and was an offshoot from the Colombo Process, a regional meeting of labor-sending countries.

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