Avoiding the Gamble: Making Migrant Labor Fairer

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Essay from Yoshiteru Uramoto, Assistant Director General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, International Labour Organization

On a recent trip to Cambodia I met a group of young people who were eager to pursue a better life by going to work abroad, although they were concerned that many migrant workers faced unfair treatment. I told them that the ILO worked on making labor migration safer and more profitable. “That’s good,” one of them said. “We don’t want Naga World [the local casino] when we go abroad, we just want fair [treatment].”

Fair treatment, without having to gamble with their future or even their physical safety, is what every migrant worker wants. It is also the essence of the ILO’s Fair Migration Agenda. We want to see labor migration create a “triple win” for workers, employers and governments, especially as this region moves towards the introduction of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of 2015.

However, the current gaps in legislative protection and the implementation of measures to regulate labor migration makes all migrant workers gamblers. And the gamble begins even before they leave home.

Domestic worker carrying her employer’s child (Photo by S Mitra for ILO)

Domestic worker carrying her employer’s child (Photo by S Mitra for ILO)

Potential migrant workers often borrow money or put up a security (like deeds to land or a house) to pay recruitment or brokerage costs, so they are in debt even before they even leave their home country. They gamble that they will be migrating safely to a good job.

When arriving in the host country migrant workers, even those with correct documentation, often find themselves the victims of extortion at border checkpoints. They may have to pay a bribe, which means the amount of money they are gambling on their migration has increased, making them less likely to complain, or cut their stay short, if the job, conditions, or pay they are offered is not what they were promised. However, such exploitation is not unusual, for many migrant workers in the ASEAN region it is a very real risk. To give just one example; an ILO study found that one in six fishers in the Thai fishing sector worked in conditions of forced labor. A recent report by the NGO Verité found even stronger indications of forced labor in Malaysia’s electronics industry.

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So the migrant workers once again gamble that their host country will take care of them, by providing labor inspections, insurance and social security, access to justice, and recourse if they are underpaid, exploited or injured at work. But current systems often favor recruiters and employers. And xenophobia, fear, myths and un-truths dominate the public debate, meaning that those who should help migrant workers–police, government services–are not always willing to assist.

It seems that migrant workers have to take a bet on their future at every stage. But finding decent work, no matter who you are, shouldn’t be a gamble. The ILO has been trying to change the situation of the migrant workers by working with the governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations of both migrants’ countries of origin and reception. But we don’t have to leave it to them. Everybody can make a difference for migrant workers. We can start by changing our attitudes and conversations. We should concentrate on what migrants contribute, not on negative myths and hearsay. Migrant work provides a massive economic boost to this region, and remittances to the East Asia and Pacific are worth more than US$90 billion.

So, this Migrants’ Day, let’s look beyond the stereotypes–which characterize migrant workers as disposable, impersonal resources, rather than hard-working individuals who want to earn a better life. Try and put yourself in the shoes of a migrant worker and speak out against unfairness, exploitation and abuse, whenever and wherever you see it, be it in homes, factories, boats, fields or the public street. By working together with employers, governments, and migrant workers, we can even the odds and make migrant work a fair deal–not a gamble–for all.

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