The Brazilian Ministry of Labor and Employment (MTE) rescued 39 workers, including children, in February from modern slavery in the state of Santa Catarina. Over half of them were Venezuelan migrants who had moved to the state via the government’s Operation Welcome program.
A construction company enticed the workers through social media posts in Venezuela, offering jobs building warehouses and promising good pay, safe work conditions, free housing and meals for the workers and their families. When workers arrived, however, they discovered that their “housing” lacked beds or bathrooms, and they were forced to build their own accommodations, which all of the workers and their families had to share. Meanwhile, none of the workers were provided signed labor documents, which meant they were neither formally hired nor had they access to work benefits.
Around the world, it is not uncommon for migrant workers to be promised decent work for good wages only to find upon arrival to a new country that they have been tricked. Not unlike the rescued Venezuelas, they often face wage theft, unsafe working conditions, abuse and exploitation.
Since 2018, the Solidarity Center in Brazil has worked to connect migrant workers to unions and strengthen collective action. The migration program raises awareness on the specific struggles of the migrant workers, shares best practices and tools with local union partners to increase migrant affiliation, and promotes social dialogue for the development of local public policies on migration through a labor movement perspective.
In recognition of its unique perspective and relationships with partner unions, the Solidarity Center was invited to join a new working group created by the Brazilian Ministry of Justice to discuss and propose a new national migration policy for adoption by the new government. The group held its first meeting March 3.
In partnership with the Center for Human Rights and Immigrant Citizenship (CDHIC) through the SindicAndo project, the migration program led to the 2022 creation of the National Network of Unions for the Protection of the Migrant Worker, which already has more than 80 members among local unions, national trade union centers, federations, confederations and global union federations. The program also supported the General Workers’ Union (UGT) Amazonas branch in the creation of the Venezuelan Association in Amazonas (ASOVEAM), which became an UGT affiliate. As of today, ASOVEAM is the head of the Committee for Migrant and Refugee Policies of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas.
The Solidarity Center, with Brazilian trade union federation CUT’s affiliate, the National Confederation of Construction and Wood Industry Workers (CONTICOM/CUT), is working to strengthen union action and confront and combat precarious work through national awareness-raising and affiliation campaigns in the Combating Precarious Work in the Construction and Wood Sectors. The project has mapped worker rights issues in the sector. According to CONTICOM, workers’ main challenges in the sector are: informal hiring, construction companies not providing personal protective equipment and/or bathrooms, the lack of government inspections of work sites, wage theft and harassment, including gender-based harassment.
Workshop on Labor and Social Rights for migrant workers in Manaus (Source: SindicAndo/CDHIC)
CONTICOM’s capacity building workshop on communication (Source: CONTI)
Dave Welsh, Thailand director for the Solidarity Center, noted: “Sawit has been out front and extremely impactful in his work to welcome and integrate migrant workers into the Thai labor movement. Given the political sensitivities within the government and the business sector around providing rights to migrant workers and Sawit’s strong role in advocating for them, there is no doubt there is a link between his advocacy for migrant workers and the legal harassment he has faced over the past decade.”
This report, The Intersection of Climate Change, Migration and Changing Economy, explores the links among climate change, economic activities and migration in the coastal areas of Khulna and Jashore, Bangladesh, demonstrating its impact on the availability of decent work and people’s decisions to migrate. Credit (cover photo): REUTERS/Rafiqur Rahman – stock.adobe.com
Eight years ago, Rubina Lama moved to Kathmandu from her nearby village and started working as a cook in a student hostel. One day, flipping the national daily newspaper Rubina came across an advertisement for a “golden opportunity in Japan.” Instantly, she knew she should grab this opportunity.
The next day, she visited the labor recruiting agency providing the chance to work in the Japanese garment industry. The agent assured her that there would be no fees as long as she began language and tailoring training. For Rubina, there was nothing more to ask. She immediately started classes, joining some three dozen other trainees, almost all under the age of 30.
It never occurred to her that the agent might ask for money in near future. Two weeks into the training, the agent asked her for 40,000 rupees (approximately $400) to cover costs.
A labor broker promised Rubini Lama a job in Japan but seven years later, it never materialized. Credit: Courtesy Rubini Lama
Managing her work as a cook and taking two classes were not easy for Rubina. But nothing could beat her determination, she says. In addition to her coursework, she continued working in the morning and evening at the hostel. Rubina says, “Only after I finished my work late at night at the hostel, did I have time to study and do the homework given in the language training. The girls of the dormitory always used to joke of my determined dream of going to Japan.”
Rubina was very excited as the training went well for the first few months. One day the agent told her, “A Japanese man is going to come soon to observe your tailoring skills and progress.” This information increased her determination. She felt closer to her dream of working and living in Japan. The following day, the agent said that each trainee would have to deposit 600,000 rupees (approximately $6,000) for visa application processing for Japan. He added that for those students who paid the fee quickly, the process would start immediately.” After a week or so, a Japanese man indeed visited the tailoring training classes. Meeting the Japanese observer confirmed that Rubina could not let her Japan dream slip away.
The sum demanded by the agent to process a visa was huge. Rubina confided her dream to her father, who wholeheartedly supported his daughter’s chance at a brighter future in Japan. Her father, however, had no source of income and decided to take a loan out against the only piece of land he owed to secure the fee. Rubina handed the $6,000 to the agent immediately after completing the bank procedure.
Days, months and years passed by after handing over the money. The agent kept saying that the process was moving. Rubina kept believing his assurances. Meanwhile, payment of the monthly interest for the loan was becoming increasingly difficult to pay on time. Around the same period, Lama’s father was diagnosed with cancer. Rubina was mentally and physically exhausted by juggling combined problems—the loan, her father’s worsening health and the stagnant visa process. However, Rubina continued to attend trainings provided by the agent.
Two years passed, the visa application still in process, which kept her hopes alive. One day, Rubina says the agent called advising her to quit her cooking job as her visa for Japan was on its way. Trusting him, she gave up her job and went back home to be with her ill father. Another year passed, with no visa. Rubina’s aspirations for Japan were still alive. Five years passed, and lost her father.
Completely broken inside and with empty hands, Rubina decided to return Kathmandu—still nurturing her spirit and determination to work in Japan. She started calling and calling the agent. One day, he answered her call, again reassuring her that the visa application process was continuing. He told her to trust him, and because of her dream, she did.
For survival, she started working as a day laborer. A month later, she found a job in a household as a domestic worker. Suddenly the agent called again and said he needed 150,000 rupees (approximately $1,500) to finalize the visa. Rubina provided him with the hard-earned cash she had earned over the previous two years—and then he disappeared. Now, seven years after trying to get to Japan on her own, she learned it generally takes a week for the embassy to process visa applications. She could not believe she had trusted a liar agent over six years.
Rubina had to move on. She took a job as a domestic worker and made plans to start a business, until the 2015 earthquake shattered that dream. Still, she says she is fortunate that she was able to fulfil her dream, at least in part. Today, after paying 400,000 rupees (approximately $4,000) to another labor recruiter, Rubina is working outside of Nepal—in Turkey as a domestic worker. She received a visa and, in 2017, left her country and began working for an affectionate family of three.
Krishma Sharma is a Solidarity Center program officer in Nepal.
This JustJobs and Solidarity Center report asserts that post-earthquake Nepal is at a unique moment when it can leverage the reconstruction process to protect worker rights and ensure that migration out of the country for work is a choice, not a necessity.
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