When Fauzia Muthoni arrived in Qatar from Kenya to work as a receptionist and earn money to support her family, the labor agent traveling with her informed Muthoni the job was in Saudi Arabia and escorted her to another plane. She tried calling her family, but realized her sim card did not work in the region. She asked to speak to the contact she was given by the labor recruiter in Kenya who arranged her job, but was told she could not contact him.
Trapped, she was taken to Saudi Arabia where she was forced to work in the homes of multiple households, cleaning, cooking and taking care of children. She was not allowed to contact her family. Back home in her town outside Nairobi, her mother repeatedly visited the labor broker to find out about her daughter, only to be told to come back the next week.
Muthoni worked for three years, toiling up to 18 hours a day, before finally escaping to a police station and ultimately back to Kenya. She was not paid for any of her work.
“They don’t think of you as a human being, they think of you as a slave to them,” she says.
Muthoni’s experience—repeated in various forms hundreds of thousands of times around the world each year—illustrates the difficulties migrant workers face in accessing justice, including assistance in leaving unsafe working conditions and claiming unpaid wages.
Migrant Workers among 25 Million Trapped in Forced Labor
U.S. National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month offers a time to amplify their experiences, which often begin when unscrupulous labor brokers prey on residents of communities in extreme poverty, falsely promising good wages and jobs in more wealthy countries like those in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. Many who take jobs abroad through exploitative labor brokers often do not know their rights—and even when they do, have no access to justice.
That’s why the Solidarity Center, which holds trainings around the world for potential migrant workers to ensure they know their rights, is increasingly working to ensure migrants can exercise those rights.
In Bangladesh, where the Solidarity Center is partnering with the Bangladesh Obivashi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA) and the WARBE Development Foundation, nearly a dozen migrant workers were recently returned to Bangladesh after reporting abuse on the job in other countries. All reported unfair recruitment practices, long working hours, unfair compensation, and assault. Three received compensation from recruiting agencies and the Bangladesh government. They also received assistance in the form of food and transportation expenses incurred during their trip back to Bangladesh.
Migrant Worker Rights the Same as All Workers
The United Nations is currently considering a Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration, which would be the first such agreement to cover all dimensions of international migration. Regulating labor brokers and ensuring access to justice are part of the broader spectrum of human and worker rights migrant workers must be guaranteed in the agreement, says Neha Misra, Solidarity Center Migration and Human Trafficking senior specialist.
“We cannot promote the contributions of migrant workers as stakeholders in sustainable development without providing them with options for fair migration,” she says. “This means migrant workers – regardless of status, sector, visa type, nationality or gender —must be treated equal to all other workers. We must develop cross-border mechanisms to allow migrant workers to access justice, remedies and compensation when unscrupulous employers steal their wages, or they are injured on the job, or they are trafficked or face gender-based violence in the workplace. This would go far in mitigating the inherent risks in migration, advancing equality in the workplace and promoting fair and sustainable development.”
Back in Kenya, Muthoni works with the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA), educating women on their rights when they seek to migrate for work abroad.
Says Muthoni: “I need to share my experience with people who want to go so they can know” their rights.
Ramon Alexander Mosquea Rosario, a union leader at Frito Lay/Pepsico worksites in the Dominican Republic, helped form the National Union of Workers of Dominican Frito Lay (SINTRALAYDO), despite nine years of employer harassment, firings and retaliation.
He encourages other workers to never give up their struggle.
Several striking palm oil workers in Honduras were physically assaulted by private security guards and threatened with prison this week as they peacefully walked a picket line at company offices in El Progreso, according to the agro-industrial workers’ union federation FESTAGRO. The workers have been on strike since October, seeking to form a union in the face of stiff employer opposition.
Denouncing the attack, STAS, an agro-industrial union affiliated with FESTAGRO, says the company “is using violence to continue to violate the rights of workers” rather than initiate a serious dialogue.
The strike began October 20 when 160 palm oil workers walked off the job to protest the firing of 18 STAS-affiliated workers fired after workers indicated their intention to form a union. In early October, 80 palm oil workers had formed the country’s first-ever palm oil union, a move that sparked efforts by workers at other palm oil plantations to form unions.
The company went on to fire another 80 STAS-affiliated workers on November 2. Some 300 workers are now on strike and families are struggling to survive after nearly 70 days on the picket line.
According to FESTAGRO and the Honduran Network of Trade Unionists against Anti-Union Violence, after staff at a regional Ministry of Labor office conducted an inspection at the plantation in late November, a young FESTAGRO organizer was followed by a company vehicle when he later met with the Labor Ministry in the town of El Progreso.
Over the years, agro-industrial workers in the melon and banana sectors seeking to form unions with FESTAGRO, a longtime partner of the Solidarity Center, have been threatened, stalked and physically assaulted. The Anti-Union Violence Network, in which FESTAGRO is a key leader, also has documented murders of farm worker union activists, including those whose unions are members of the network.
The attack on the palm oil workers comes in the wake of violent repression against Hondurans protesting the country’s flawed elections. Honduran labor unions and human rights groups are demanding respect for human rights and transparency in the resolution of the country’s election crisis.
Protecting the rights of migrant workers must be an essential component of the United Nations Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration, according to union leaders who met recently in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to craft a worker rights agenda for inclusion in the global compact, the first inter-governmentally negotiated agreement to comprehensively cover all dimensions of international migration.
The December 1–2 meeting preceded a UN gathering to assess recommendations and discuss implementation of the global compact on migration. The 17 union leaders from across the Americas crafted a shared policy agenda and outlined plans to advocate within national and regional government bodies.
“It cannot be overstated how important the content of the compact will be in terms of creating policies that will affect economic inclusion,” says Neha Misra, Solidarity Center senior specialist for migration and trafficking. “This work will set the agenda for global action on migration and the role of displaced workers for at least the next decade. It is crucial that migrant workers, and the unions and worker centers that represent them, have a voice in the global compact negotiations process.”
Elena Villafuerte, PRODESC; Neha Misra, Solidarity Center; and María Carmen Molina from CSTS in Mexico were among panelists presenting labor’s joint position on labor migration.
In a panel presentation sharing labor’s joint position with UN participants, María del Carmen Molina, general secretary of the Confederation of Salvadoran Workers (CSTS), stressed the importance of protecting all workers’ rights, regardless of immigration status, and the responsibility of governments to ensure conditions so migration is by choice, not compulsion.
Misra and Solidarity Center partners from the Central American Regional Union Committee on Migration (Comité Inter-Sindical), ProDESC and Centro de Derechos del Migrante in Mexico took part in the civil society meetings prior to the UN’s formal session, and presented their recommendations to the full UN meeting December 4–6.
Union leaders also emphasized the need to ensure accessible pathways to regularization to ensure full rights for the world’s 150 million are migrant workers, and end the global expansion of abusive and exploitative labor migration programs. They agreed to take the issue of migrant worker rights back to their respective labor bodies to continue to educate and advocate on the issue.
The UN process to develop the global compact for migration began in April 2017. The UN General Assembly will hold an intergovernmental conference on international migration in 2018 with a view to adopting the global compact. Following the UN meeting, participants issued a joint statement summarizing their suggestions for implementing the global compact.
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