Migrant Workers

Respecting the rights of migrant workers

17 December 2013

By Neill Wilkins, Head of Migrant Workers Programme, IHRB

"All companies need to reduce the distance between themselves, their operations and negative impacts on the rights of migrant workers, consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Business cannot contract out the responsibility to respect to others and it is increasingly apparent that reliance on social auditing and inspection is no substitute for proper engagement with all stakeholders – including workers."

Business will achieve nothing at arms length; it needs to engage.

On International Migrants Day 18th December 2013, we are again reminded of a stark reality of our global economy – that despite the crucial role of migration as a driver of global economic growth, far too many migrant workers in every region continue to face a range of challenges and violations of fundamental rights.

For centuries, migrant workers have undertaken some of the most arduous, difficult and dangerous jobs. This remains so today. Being away from their home countries adds a particular set of vulnerabilities, which others can exploit. The effects of this can be seen in many different ways, across a range of different industry sectors and locations around the world.

What should responsible business leaders and all other actors do to ensure respect for the rights of migrant workers, in particular those that are most vulnerable to abuse? What ideas and initiatives offer the most promising path forward for the year ahead?

To start, there is an urgent need to focus more on developing systems of ethical recruitment. The dire situations for many workers in their home countries provide a strong incentive to seek work abroad. But lack of accurate knowledge and information about finding decent work as a migrant can be in short supply; this being especially true amongst rural and poorly educated communities. This mismatch of information allows a host of often unregulated and unlicensed labour brokers and recruitment agents to coerce, deceive and cheat would-be migrants with promises of work abroad far exceeding the reality of what they could, or will, actually deliver.

Growing evidence highlights the tiers of deception that rapidly develop as workers are passed along supply chains of labour, with increasing debt via onerous fees and charges accrued at every stage of the process. Each link in the chain removes the worker even further from access to accurate information or redress for broken promises. Every addition to the debt they owe increasing their vulnerability to further exploitation.

Part of the reason for this situation is that migrant workers are in many cases delivered to the worksites of suppliers or sub-contractors usually operating at a safe distance from the core of the company for whom they ultimately produce goods, harvest crops or construct buildings. The migrant workforce continues to be viewed only as distant units of labour, and increasingly is expected to work as agency labour, as commercial contracts between companies replace deeper employment relationships between individuals and those who benefit from their work.

Added to this, conditions at supplier facilities vary but for many migrants the work, pay and conditions bear little resemblance to what they were promised. Trade union representation is also often lacking, too often a result of deliberate government policy, obstruction from employers or simply the lack of resources available to organise effectively.

Governments in sending countries are frequently unwilling or unable to control the activities of recruitment agents and claim little leverage with countries of destination, this being compromised by a need to export as much labour as possible. In destination countries, migrant workers can be distanced from knowledge or use of the law. In others, their rights are deliberately restricted. For undocumented migrant workers, there are even fewer protections.

For many migrant workers, these flawed civil systems can expose them to abuse at every stage of recruitment and employment abroad. As major brands rush to ensure that factories in Bangladesh and elsewhere comply with building regulations, they should not forget that a similar duty of care must exist for the many thousands who migrate to work in their supply chains.

The increased interest around the world in combating human trafficking and forced labour - a subject that intersects with migration at many levels - means that business will continue to face increased scrutiny of their operations from customers, governments and wider civil society. The Uk Government has recently put forward a Modern Slavery Bill. The US Government in 2012 issued an Executive Order To Prevent Trafficking in Federal Contracts. Recent Initiatives such as Know the Chain build upon the requirements of the California Transparency Act by aggregating company statements for comparison. Activists, NGOs and customers are scrutinising companies’ efforts to prevent trafficking as never before. Company shareholders and the wider finance community are also seeking to understand and influence company performance, and avoid risk.

All companies need to reduce the distance between themselves, their operations and negative impacts on the rights of migrant workers, consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Business cannot contract out the responsibility to respect to others and it is increasingly apparent that reliance on social auditing and inspection is no substitute for proper engagement with all stakeholders – including workers.

There are some signs that leading companies recognise the need to take this step. In the UK, Stronger Together, a multi-stakeholder initiative backed by the major supermarkets, their suppliers and recruitment agencies, provides a model for action. The initiative seeks to protect workers (many of whom are migrants) at a very practical shop floor level. A still small but growing number of companies are also using tools like the Dhaka Principles for Migration with Dignity and Verité Fair Hiring Toolkit to understand human rights related risks and responsibilities at every stage of the migration cycle.

All efforts by business to engage with the challenges faced by migrant workers are welcome. It also makes business sense for companies whose operational models are increasingly dependent on migrant labour to understand and mitigate risk. Proper engagement is the requisite for effective and sustainable action and progress. Respect, and rights for migrant workers cannot be achieved at arms length.

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