Making the System Fair for Migrant Workers

Ishor, 24, migrated from Nepal to Malaysia last November to work for a company at Johor Bahru’s busy commercial shipping port. What he did not know before he arrived is that the job involved working 16-hour days and being physically abused and harassed by his employer. Like most migrant workers, Ishor likely paid a labor broker a large amount of money to secure the job.

“Agents usually give (migrant workers) a very beautiful picture about the conditions in which they are going to work,” says Karuppiah Somasundram, assistant secretary of education of the Malaysia Trades Union Congress (MTUC). “Usually (migrant workers) don’t get a clear picture about how the work is going to be in Malaysia.”

Unscrupulous private recruitment agencies, prevalent in the labor migration process, offer workers non-existent jobs; misrepresent working conditions and compensation; confiscate  crucial documents, like workers’ passports and visas; and impose excessive and illegal fees, according to labor and migrant rights groups around the world.

Solidarity Center Conference Explores Labor Recruitment
Strategies for reforming the labor recruitment process is one of the key topics at the upcoming Solidarity Center conference on labor migration in Bogor, Indonesia. From August 10–12, more than 200 migrant worker rights experts will also discuss migrant worker access to justice, xenophobia and organizing migrant workers.

While Malaysia is a destination country for many migrants seeking work, Bangladesh sees more than 600,000 workers a year who leave for jobs, making it one of the largest countries of origin for migrant workers.

Bangladeshi workers who migrate “are suffering, they are crying, they are not getting food,” says Sumaiya Islam, director of the Bangladesh Migrant Women’s Organization (BOMSA). “After two years, after three years, they are not getting their salary. After spending $1,000 (to labor recruiters), they are not getting paid.”

BOMSA holds “courtyard meetings” in villages around the country, helping women understand their rights before they migrate—including what they should demand of labor brokers and the wage and working conditions at the homes in Gulf and Asian countries where they will be employed as domestic workers. Simultaneously, BOMSA has been working to change national level policies to ensure that employers, not workers, pay recruitment fees.

The next step, Sumaiya says, is to educate employers in destination countries, “especially women, about the rights of domestic workers.”

Migrant Workers Need Jobs, Countries Need Workers
“Most Malaysians cannot take breakfast without migrants,” says Karuppiah. “You go to hotel, it’s a migrant; a car wash, it’s a migrant. At minimum, they work 12 hours or 14 hours a day. In Malaysia, (employers) give them one day rest day a month.”

On the other side of the migration spectrum, Sumaiya describes the factors pushing Bangladeshis far from their homes.

“I was in training center and I was talking with workers about why are you going,” she says. “Some say we need more money, more than 60 percent say we like to change our life because our husband is getting married again, some (husbands) are beating us, some (husbands) are drug addicts, some (husbands) are not giving us money for our family life. Most of them are saying they are supporting their family, Most of them cannot sign even their name, so they say ‘I have to go overseas so I can earn money.’”

Those working on behalf of migrant workers like Karuppiah and Sumaiya, believe that the majority of the world’s 247 million migrants who migrate for jobs will continue to do so. Their job is to make the process fair for workers, from their first contact with a labor broker to the day they return their families at home.

Karuppiah and Sumaiya will discuss their strategies next week at Labor Migration: Who Benefits? A Solidarity Center Global Conference on Worker Rights and Shared Prosperity.

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