Workers Rights Key to Ending Trafficking

Workers Rights Key to Ending Trafficking

Imagine the population of New York City. Then triple that number. That’s how many people around the world are being robbed of their freedom through human trafficking—24.9 million.

While “trafficking” seems to imply movement across borders, some 77 percent of those targeted by human traffickers do not leave their country of residence, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Most are trafficked for forced labor, one-third are children.

Human trafficking, labor migration, Tom Lantos Committee on Human Rights, Neha Misra, Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center’s Neha Misra testified on Capital Hill on the need for worker rights in forming unions and bargaining as key to ending human trafficking. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

“Human trafficking thrives in a context of private actors and economic coercion,” says Neha Misra, testifying recently on Capitol Hill before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

“We must address what one leading global expert on the international law of human trafficking calls the ‘underlying structures that perpetuate and reward exploitation, including a global economy that relies heavily on exploitation of poor people’s labor to maintain growth and a global migration system that entrenches vulnerability and contributes directly to trafficking,’ ” says Misra, Solidarity Center senior specialist for migration and human trafficking. Trafficking and severe labor exploitation are part of a continuum of labor exploitation and abusive working conditions workers face around the world in workplaces as diverse as factories, farms and offices.

The Lantos hearing was part of a series of congressional events in January around U.S. Human Trafficking Awareness Month, which marks the date Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000. That same year, the United Nations passed the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (the Palermo Protocol). As part of the TVPA, the U.S. State Department each year issues a detailed report on trafficking in persons, ranking countries on the extent to which they are addressing and eliminating it.

Since then, global nations have a clearer understanding of human trafficking—including its direct connection to forced labor and exploitation—and 168 governments have implemented domestic legislation criminalizing all forms of human trafficking, transnationally and nationally.

Yet as indicated by the staggering number of those trafficked, much more needs to be done.

“Over the past 20 years, the extent of forced labor in global supply chains has become increasingly clear. And yet, governments continue to fail to hold corporations to account,” says Misra.

Migrant Workers, Domestic Workers Targets of Trafficking

migrant workers, domestic workers, UN, Solidarity Center

Isolated in private homes, domestic workers, whether nationals or migrants, are particularly at risk of exploitation, harassment and abuse, including sexual violence—and have difficulty accessing justice. Domestic workers, who comprise 11.5 million migrant workers—are also among the largest group of trafficked migrant workers and are vulnerable to human trafficking and forced labor—within their home countries, as internal migrants, and as cross-border migrants.

“Recognizing domestic workers as workers is key to combatting the vulnerability they face to human trafficking,” says Alexis De Simone, Solidarity Center senior program officer for the Americas. De Simone spoke at a Capitol Hill briefing Friday sponsored by U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

A domestic worker who requested anonymity described at the briefing the abusive conditions she experienced after a diplomat brought her from Chile to the United States in 2009. She was promised fair wages and benefits, but after she started working, the family refused to pay her. Her employers withheld food, stole her passport, and threatened her with deportation if she talked with anyone outside the household—an all-too common experience for domestic workers worldwide.

Collective Action Key to Ending Trafficking, Forced Labor

Combating human trafficking, forced labor and other forms of severe labor exploitation means putting worker rights at the forefront of solutions.

The 2011 ILO convention (global treaty) covering domestic workers “has raised the bar globally for states and employers to recognize and enforce the labor rights of domestic workers,” says De Simone.

Domestic workers around the world educated and mobilized for passage of the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers, along the way helping workers understand that violence, abuse, coercion and intimidation are not part of the job. “And that recognition, that righteous indignation, is often the spark for organizing that helps us end the imbalance of power,” says De Simone.

Human trafficking, domestic workers, Pramila Jayapal, Alexis De Simone, Solidarity Center
“Recognizing domestic workers as workers is key to combatting the vulnerability they face to human trafficking”—Alexis De Simone, Solidarity Center. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Yet not only international law, but on-the-ground grassroots union organizing and building power among domestic workers is key to combating vulnerability to trafficking, she says. “Union contracts are helping domestic workers worldwide ensure their rights to safe jobs without forced labor and human trafficking.”

De Simone cited examples of how union collective bargaining agreements have improved conditions for domestic workers in Argentina, Uruguay and Sao Paulo, Brazil, and shared the success of domestic workers in Mexico who ensured the country’s new labor law includes domestic workers—often among an excluded group of workers in many country’s labor laws.

Unions also are reaching across borders, building union-to-union relationships between countries of origin and destination like Paraguay and Argentina, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, Nepal and Lebanon.

But “freedom of association must be assured in practice, not just law,” says Misra. “This means strict penalties for employers who fire, retaliate against or collude with government officials to deport migrant workers seeking to form unions.”

Says Misra: “From rubber plantations in Liberia, garment factories in Jordan and to domestic workers’ households in Kenya, Solidarity Center has seen time and again how democratic worker organizing and collective bargaining can eliminate forced labor in a workplace.”

A First of Its Kind: Kyrgyz Migrant Workers’ Union

A First of Its Kind: Kyrgyz Migrant Workers’ Union

Since the start of 2019, more than 2,000 migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan have joined together to protect their rights abroad through the new Migrant Workers’ Union. On October 17, more than 100 union delegates came together in the town of Isfana, Kyrgyzstan, for the union’s founding congress.

Solidarity Center, Kyrgyzstan, migrant workers, worker rights, human rights

Newly elected deputy chairwoman of the Migrant Workers’ Union, Batyrova Kanykey, addresses more than 100 delegates at their founding congress. Credit: Elena Rubtsova

The congress marks a crucial step as the union establishes itself as a leading support system for migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan. Delegates cast their votes to elect union leadership and planned activities and outreach to more workers in the coming year.
Workers from across three regions of western Kyrgyzstan—Batken, Jalal-Abad and Osh—worked together to build this new organization, with support from the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek, a local foundation that provided assistance to migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan over the last five years. The union has also garnered support from the Germany-based Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Caritas France.

Insan-Leilek celebrated the milestone with a video in Russian.

Protecting Workers Abroad

Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, and from around the world, often face discrimination, exploitation and unsafe working conditions when they arrive in their destination countries. In Russia, a common destination for Kyrgyz migrants, workers have reported working without official contracts or having their wages stolen, with few opportunities to stand up for their rights and hold their employers accountable. Kyrgyz workers also travel to Kazakhstan, Germany and elsewhere for work. Many stay year-round, while others travel back and forth each year for seasonal jobs.

“A large number of labor migrants are subjected to exploitation and violation of their rights by employers, employment agencies and other intermediaries,” says Gulnara Derbisheva, a human rights activist in Kyrgyzstan and the leader of Insan-Leilek. “They face abuse of authority by the police and other officials. In some cases, labor migrants are victims of trafficking and forced labor.”

Since 2015, the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek have held pre-departure trainings for working women and men who are preparing to migrate abroad, most of them to Russia. Through these trainings, thousands of migrants have learned about their rights and the protections they have under Russian labor law. Armed with this knowledge, many workers have started exercising their rights the moment they arrive at their new jobs.

Many migrants have used their knowledge of Russian labor law to negotiate higher wages and overtime pay. Others have worked with their employers to ensure they have fully signed contracts that specify their working conditions and document their ability to work in the country. Migrant women have also learned how to protect their rights, including avoiding human traffickers and reporting workplace harassment.

The Solidarity Center also provides training participants with contact information for local legal support in their destination countries. Through hotlines and free consultations, workers can seek legal help if or when they encounter issues on the job, such as wage theft and harassment.

The Solidarity Center’s pre-departure trainings have also shown migrants how they can join trade unions to further protect their rights, even when they are working abroad. As a result, workers decided they should create their own union so they could tailor it to support Kyrgyz migrants.

Migrant Workers Organizing for Justice

The creation of the Migrant Workers’ Union, its members say, is not just timely but also necessary to protect their rights at a time when more than one-fifth of Kyrgyz citizens are living and working abroad.

Gulzat, a delegate at the congress from the village of Boz-Adyr in the Batken region, first heard about the union at a training session the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek held in her village earlier in 2019. “I learned many important things about my labor rights and how they could be protected,” she says. “It was then that I decided to join the Migrant Workers’ Union because I am going back to work in Russia.”

Gulzat first went to work in Russia in 2010, where she experienced wage theft firsthand. “I became a dishwasher in a Moscow cafe and was a victim of fraud when I was left without a salary,” she explains. “I didn’t know where to turn for help, but now I know.”

The Migrant Workers’ Union currently has 2,150 members. But the union’s protections extend beyond just its members. Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan rely on decent wages not only for themselves but also to support their families back home. Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan remitted an estimated $2.48 billion in 2018, about 34 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Since 2017, Kyrgyzstan has been the most remittance-dependent country in the world, and remittances are particularly important in its western regions like Batken. As migrant workers learn to defend their rights abroad, they also ensure their families in Kyrgyzstan can have more economic security and access more opportunities at home.

“Everybody needs their union,” says Gulzat. “Especially migrants.”

A First of Its Kind: Kyrgyz Migrant Workers’ Union

A First of Its Kind: Kyrgyz Migrant Workers’ Union

Since the start of 2019, more than 2,000 migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan have joined together to protect their rights abroad through the new Migrant Workers’ Union. On October 17, more than 100 union delegates came together in the town of Isfana, Kyrgyzstan, for the union’s founding congress.

Solidarity Center, Kyrgyzstan, migrant workers, worker rights, human rights

Newly elected deputy chairwoman of the Migrant Workers’ Union, Batyrova Kanykey, addresses more than 100 delegates at their founding congress. Credit: Elena Rubtsova

The congress marks a crucial step as the union establishes itself as a leading support system for migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan. Delegates cast their votes to elect union leadership and planned activities and outreach to more workers in the coming year.
Workers from across three regions of western Kyrgyzstan—Batken, Jalal-Abad and Osh—worked together to build this new organization, with support from the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek, a local foundation that provided assistance to migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan over the last five years. The union has also garnered support from the Germany-based Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Caritas France.

Insan-Leilek celebrated the milestone with a video in Russian.

Protecting Workers Abroad

Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, and from around the world, often face discrimination, exploitation and unsafe working conditions when they arrive in their destination countries. In Russia, a common destination for Kyrgyz migrants, workers have reported working without official contracts or having their wages stolen, with few opportunities to stand up for their rights and hold their employers accountable. Kyrgyz workers also travel to Kazakhstan, Germany and elsewhere for work. Many stay year-round, while others travel back and forth each year for seasonal jobs.

“A large number of labor migrants are subjected to exploitation and violation of their rights by employers, employment agencies and other intermediaries,” says Gulnara Derbisheva, a human rights activist in Kyrgyzstan and the leader of Insan-Leilek. “They face abuse of authority by the police and other officials. In some cases, labor migrants are victims of trafficking and forced labor.”

Since 2015, the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek have held pre-departure trainings for working women and men who are preparing to migrate abroad, most of them to Russia. Through these trainings, thousands of migrants have learned about their rights and the protections they have under Russian labor law. Armed with this knowledge, many workers have started exercising their rights the moment they arrive at their new jobs.

Many migrants have used their knowledge of Russian labor law to negotiate higher wages and overtime pay. Others have worked with their employers to ensure they have fully signed contracts that specify their working conditions and document their ability to work in the country. Migrant women have also learned how to protect their rights, including avoiding human traffickers and reporting workplace harassment.

The Solidarity Center also provides training participants with contact information for local legal support in their destination countries. Through hotlines and free consultations, workers can seek legal help if or when they encounter issues on the job, such as wage theft and harassment.

The Solidarity Center’s pre-departure trainings have also shown migrants how they can join trade unions to further protect their rights, even when they are working abroad. As a result, workers decided they should create their own union so they could tailor it to support Kyrgyz migrants.

Migrant Workers Organizing for Justice

The creation of the Migrant Workers’ Union, its members say, is not just timely but also necessary to protect their rights at a time when more than one-fifth of Kyrgyz citizens are living and working abroad.

Gulzat, a delegate at the congress from the village of Boz-Adyr in the Batken region, first heard about the union at a training session the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek held in her village earlier in 2019. “I learned many important things about my labor rights and how they could be protected,” she says. “It was then that I decided to join the Migrant Workers’ Union because I am going back to work in Russia.”

Gulzat first went to work in Russia in 2010, where she experienced wage theft firsthand. “I became a dishwasher in a Moscow cafe and was a victim of fraud when I was left without a salary,” she explains. “I didn’t know where to turn for help, but now I know.”

The Migrant Workers’ Union currently has 2,150 members. But the union’s protections extend beyond just its members. Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan rely on decent wages not only for themselves but also to support their families back home. Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan remitted an estimated $2.48 billion in 2018, about 34 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Since 2017, Kyrgyzstan has been the most remittance-dependent country in the world, and remittances are particularly important in its western regions like Batken. As migrant workers learn to defend their rights abroad, they also ensure their families in Kyrgyzstan can have more economic security and access more opportunities at home.

“Everybody needs their union,” says Gulzat. “Especially migrants.”

Report: Call to Action for Rights of People on the Move

Report: Call to Action for Rights of People on the Move

The freedom to speak, join unions and take part in community life are basic human rights that apply to all people—including migrant workers and refugees, panelists at a United Nations side event said this afternoon in New York City.

“Migrant workers and refugees don’t usually have access to justice, and so the lack of enjoyment of these rights has more of a negative impact on them than on the general population,” said Felipe Gonzalez Morales, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.

Gonzalez and other panelists took part in the event to launch a new report, Freedoms on the Move: The Civic Space of Migrant Workers and Refugees, by the Solidarity Center and CIVICUS. The report’s findings make clear that many migrant workers and refugees want to access their civic freedoms and do not want to remain on the margins. They want to have a say in their communities and their workplaces, and in the decisions that affect their lives.

(The report also is available in Spanish and French).

Through in depth surveys, Freedoms on the Move highlights the experiences of 1,000 migrant workers and refugees in Germany, Kenya, Jordan, Malaysia and Mexico who discuss the barriers to freedom of association, assembly and expression, and the factors enabling them to exercise those rights.

“Legislation in countries deny migrant workers the right to have access to freedom of association,” said Griet Cattaert, policy officer at the International Labor Organization. And because migrant workers often work in the informal economy, sometimes in “hidden work” like domestic workers in private homes, “it is much more difficult to organize themselves in unions,” she said.

(Watch the full event here).

Freedoms on the Move: An Urgent Call to Action

Neha Misra, Solidarity Center, migration, Freedoms on the Move report

“Migrant worker rights are not just good for them but their communities.”—Neha Misra Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

The global assaults on democracy and fundamental rights is an urgent call to action for unions and other civil society groups to include migrant workers and refugees in advancing these rights, panelists said.

In the report, CIVICUS and the Solidarity Center urge all states to create and maintain, in law and in practice, an enabling environment for the rights of migrant workers and refugees, in accordance with international laws and standards.

“Democratic society cannot thrive when entire populations of people excluded,” said Neha Misra, Solidarity Center senior specialist for migration and trafficking. “Migrant workers we talked to rightfully insisted their destination countries have much to gain from their presence. Migrant worker rights are not just good for them but their communities.”

“Freedom of association and expression are important for migrant workers because they are human rights,” said Crispin Hernandez, a migrant agricultural worker who helped his co-workers organize with the Workers’ Center of Central New York.

“It doesn’t matter where we come from, or our country of origin, or our gender. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what kind of work you do. It doesn’t matter what I do for a living. I am entitled to my rights. We are humans.”

Freedom to Form Unions Key to Migrant Worker Rights 

More than 258 million migrants, 164 million of whom are migrant workers, live outside their origin countries as global inequality and the search for decent work push workers to migrate far from their homes, and as war and economic crises force millions across borders.


Monami Maulik, international coordinator at the Global Coalition on Migration, discussed how the report builds on the recently negotiated Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, the first-ever UN global agreement on a common approach to international migration in all its dimensions.

“Fundamental to success of the Global Compact on Migration is the participation and engagement of migrant workers with unions and civil society, and so the success of implementing rights’ protections for migrant workers means we first must look at what’s happening to their freedom to organize,” she said.

Freedoms on the Move finds that “migrant workers and refugees must have the opportunity to come together, advocate for their well being without fear of reprisal and hold states accountable for delivering on their obligations under international laws,” Misra said.

Employer Harassment Major Barrier to Forming Unions

Griet Cattaert, ILO, Crispin Hernandez, NY Workers Center, migration, Solidarity Center, CIVICUS, migrant workers, Freedom on the Move report

Griet Cattaert and Crispin Hernandez discussed why human rights laws apply to migrant workers .Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

The report found that harassment or pressure from employers is the main obstacle for migrant workers seeking to form unions or otherwise exercise their freedom of association: 78 percent of respondents in Jordan, 66 percent in Kenya, 74 percent in Malaysia and 33 percent in Mexico.

More key findings from the report include:

  • Migrant workers believe the main limitation on their freedom of expression is the possibility of being fired from work, detained or deported, with wide variations by gender: 47 percent of women and 72 percent of men in Jordan; 62 percent and 71 percent respectively in Kenya; 50 percent and 41 percent in Malaysia, and 80 percent and 45 percent in Mexico.
  • Rates of participation in protests vary widely, from only 11 percent in Jordan and Mexico to 58 percent in Germany.
  • Refugees say a lack of resources is the major limitation that prevents people from associating and organizing.
Join Us Live Online for Freedoms on the Move!

Join Us Live Online for Freedoms on the Move!

Join Solidarity Center and CIVICUS Friday, October 18, at 3 p.m. EST for the launch of a new report, Freedoms on the Move: The Civic Space of Migrant Workers and Refugees, by CIVICUS and the Solidarity Center. Participants at the event will share findings and recommendations on civic space barriers for migrants and refugees.

Click here to see the event on Facebook Live.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants Felipe Gonzalez Morales will join other civil society activists to discuss how they are advancing freedom of association, expression and assembly for migrant workers and refugees. Panelists also include:

  • Griet Cattaert, International Labor Organization
  • Crispin Hernandez, Workers’ Center of Central New York
  • Neha Misra, Solidarity Center

Monami Maulik at the Global Coalition on Migration will moderate.

As globalization and the search for decent work push workers to migrate far from their homes, and as war and economic crises force millions across borders, there is limited data on whether and how migrant workers and refugees are able to exercise their fundamental civic freedoms.

Through two in depth surveys, one of migrant workers and another of refugees, Freedoms on the Move also explores the factors that make migrant workers and refugees more likely to try to assert their rights, the circumstances that make them more vulnerable to violations and abuses, and the perpetrators and enablers of denials of their rights.

Freedoms on the Move is an urgent call to action for unions and civil society advocating for civic freedoms in their countries. As the report states:

“International human rights law does not limit civil and political rights to citizens. Like everyone else, migrant workers and refuges should be able to enjoy the key civic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. For migrant workers and refugees, these freedoms offer protection against discrimination, marginalization and scapegoating, which commonly affect them in their host or destination countries. When the rights to association, peaceful assembly and expression are open to migrant workers and refugees, they can organize and act to uphold their interests in their workplaces and communities, influence public opinion and hold public officials accountable.”

Stop back to access the full report on October 10, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!

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