Losing More Than Their Health – COVID-19 and Migrant Worker Wage Theft (Pt 4)
Commentary, 31 July 2020
By Guna Subramaniam, South East Asia Regional Advisor, Migrant Workers Programme, IHRB
COVID-19 and Migrant Workers
As part of our continuing focus on the links between COVID-19 and the business and human rights agenda, IHRB is exploring the impact of the pandemic on migrant workers across Asia and the roles and responsibilities of businesses in addressing these challenges. Most of the 35million+ migrant workers estimated to live and work in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are from Africa or South and Southeast Asia. Across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states, an estimated 10 million migrant workers live and work in major destinations such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. During the pandemic, countries in the GCC and Singapore were ranked in the top ten for infection rates per million, and almost all cases were from migrant workers living in dormitories.
This five part series begins with an overview of the range of challenges facing migrant workers throughout South East Asia as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Subsequent pieces in the series will cover accommodation conditions, discrimination issues, recruitment fees and wage theft, as well as impacts to migrant workers’ remittances back 利来w66老牌home.
“The fear of losing jobs is worrying everyone at the moment.” These are the words of Sharif Uddin, a Bangladeshi construction supervisor, who sends the bulk of his wages to his family in Bangladesh and is still repaying loans taken to pay off his recruitment agent, like many migrant workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted millions of migrant workers in destination countries. Many have experienced job loss or non-payment of wages, or have been made to accept unpaid leave or reduced wages. Many migrant workers struggle with the dilemma of exercising their right to return in these circumstances, while others remain stranded in cities without access to services or support, or in border areas living in precarious conditions posing as quarantine facilities.
Vulnerability is Designed into Migrant Workers Lives
As the rate of infection among migrant workers shook the Gulf states, large numbers of migrant workers were repatriated. But many sent back 利来w66老牌home still had to pay off recruitment fee debt. Due to flight suspensions in Bangladesh, about 200,000 prospective migrants ready to take up their new jobs abroad were suddenly stranded. They have already taken out loans and paid for their recruitment costs, but now have no way to pay them back.
The indebtedness of migrant workers due to exorbitant recruitment fees is a significant factor in their passive acceptance of discrimination, harsh working conditions, and degrading living conditions.
Migrant workers often incur significant amounts of debt for the payment of recruitment fees. Their work permits are usually tied to their employers, who have control over cancelling their permits and repatriating them, creating positions of control, dependency, and easy abuse. They often cannot seek alternative employment and have no financial safety net. They face challenges with communication due to a lack of grievance mechanisms, and as their work contracts and supervisors often do not communicate in languages they are familiar with. They are therefore especially vulnerable as they become reliant on their employers for appropriate accommodation, financial security, and basic welfare information.
The indebtedness of migrant workers due to exorbitant recruitment fees is a significant factor in their passive acceptance of discrimination, harsh working conditions, and degrading living conditions. The spike in COVID-19 infections among migrant workers is largely traced to them existing in confined, poor, and dense living conditions. However, many migrant workers express more concern about their recruitment fee debts, reduced or unpaid wages, limited work options, and poor access to health care, than their living conditions in dormitories.
Many migrant workers have also resigned themselves to the situation of wage theft in the form of unfair or unpaid wages, as it has persisted across migration corridors for years – accepting it as their fate and refraining from complaining for fear of losing their jobs or being made undocumented.
In today’s COVID climate, levels of wage non-payment – wage theft – will be unprecedented, especially for migrant workers being repatriated as part of pandemic responses. Recently, conditions were so severe that migrant workers staged a rare protest in Qatar over unpaid wages. Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) – a regional communication and coordination point between member-organizations and advocates – are calling upon countries of origin and destination to urgently put in place a transitional justice mechanism to address grievances, claims, and labour disputes of repatriated workers who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.
Listen to Migrants, They Know
There needs to be better long-term business practices and regulation of recruitment practices, to improve migrant workers’ financial security and empower them to reject dehumanising conditions. Migrant workers are best placed to speak about their experiences and make the appropriate recommendations about improving their situation. They need to be able to advocate for their own well-being and to speak up without fear of persecution. Undermining this is the fact that many judicial systems often provide weak access to justice for migrant workers, and not all countries allow migrant worker-led unions to be formed.
Migrant workers are best placed to speak about their experiences and make the appropriate recommendations about improving their situation.
There is much that every business can and should be doing to enable migrant workers to be empowered and represent their own interests. Fundamental, is the responsibility of businesses to respect the inherent right of workers, including the employees of contractors and sub-contractors. This includes their right to organise themselves and to negotiate on issues of concern, irrespective of the legal or regulatory framework in operation. Migrant workers should be informed, in a language they understand, of their right to any operational level grievance mechanisms that exist or to join a trade union. Where trade union activity is restricted by law, employers should facilitate the establishment of worker-elected committees. In setting up committees of this kind, businesses should closely consult workers, and allow them to lead the process of design and implementation as far as possible. Consideration must be given to ensure that committees reflect the gender balance and the ethnicities and nationalities of the migrant workforce, and that a mechanism exists whereby grievances are relayed without fear of retribution.
Looking ahead, as various industries seek to respond to COVID-19 and its economic consequences, and labour markets begin to show signs of growth, rehiring processes should have in place options for jobseekers and migrant workers to decide what is safest for them.
Where to Start
As a starting point, businesses should have a clear and transparent recruitment policy that prohibits the charging of recruitment fees to migrant workers, irrespective of where or how they are recruited. Through the implementing of procedures and guidelines for the hiring of staff or the use of recruitment agencies, businesses can ensure no worker is required to pay a deposit or bond to secure employment, nor have to pay any reimbursements to cover their recruitment fees and associated costs. All contracts with recruitment agencies should specify that no recruitment fees be charged to workers, and that applicants are informed through job advertisements and the interview process that they should not bear any costs of recruitment. The recruitment of workers should be included in auditing and due diligence processes. Confidential processes for reporting exploitation should also be provided to migrant workers, and remedial action taken if fees have been levied.
As a starting point, businesses should have a clear and transparent recruitment policy that prohibits the charging of recruitment fees to migrant workers, irrespective of where or how they are recruited.
IHRB’s Dhaka Principles are one practical guide for brands, employers, labour brokers, and other stakeholders with steps following the migration process, from 利来w66老牌home to place of employment through to the end of contract. The first step, that the employer not the worker should pay the costs of recruitment, is embodied in the Employer Pays Principle – a business principle increasingly being supported across industries. There is a wealth of other guidance for businesses and governments looking to effectively manage migrant workforces.
The COVID crisis has turned many business models on their head. There is an opportunity for it to become a point of change where old norms are overturned, dismantled, and reshaped to support the millions at the front lines of our global economy.
Each year, millions of dollars are lost in potential remittances due to recruitment fee payment and debt, even as countries of origin continue to explore new markets for deployment of migrant workers, while countries of destination thrive on cheap and exploitable migrant labour. In Part 5, we look at building a fairer and more resilient future that transitions away from structural and institutional inequities.