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)
The trafficking of agriculture workers, including children, is widespread globally, and “practices of exceptionalism” limit workers’ rights to freedom of association, organizing and collective bargaining, according to a new report on trafficking in persons in agriculture from United Nations Special Rapporteur Siobhán Mullally.
“Characterized by high levels of informality, lack of oversight and protection, trafficking in persons remains a serious concern within the agricultural sector, affecting both adults and children,” she writes.
The report notes that while the COVID-19 pandemic saw agricultural workers designated as “essential,” worker protections did not follow. Indeed, temporary, seasonal and migrant workers are provided limited legal coverage, and restrictive migration policies persist despite the demand for agricultural workers.
Discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, migration status, gender and disability creates conditions within which trafficking occurs with impunity.
Land inequality, particularly affecting women and girls, drives exploitation, including trafficking for forced labor.
The agriculture sector employs an estimated 28 percent of the total global labor force and an estimated 60 percent of the labor force in low-income countries. Because it is characterized by high levels of informal and seasonal employment, the risks of exploitation are also high.
Discrimination based on migration status leaves workers vulnerable to trafficking.
Gender inequality in land ownership and tenure contributes to poverty, dependency and risks of violence, including trafficking of women and girls. Women are estimated to make up 20 percent of the world’s landholders but account for 43 percent of agricultural workers.
Indigenous women and girls may experience increased risks of trafficking due to the intersection of discrimination and violence, based on gender, race, ethnicity, indigenous origin and poverty.
People with disabilities may be particularly at risk of trafficking in agricultural work, where there is limited oversight and monitoring of worker rights.
Agriculture is the entry point for child labor, accounting for 76.6 percent in child laborers ages 5-11 and 75.8 percent in children ages 12-14. Children who travel with parents migrating for work often miss out on their education, as well.
The Special Rapporteur also highlighted that recruitment practices for the sector–particularly of seasonal, temporary and migrant workers–increase risks of trafficking for forced labor. Recruitment processes and substantial recruitment and other fees often lead to debt bondage.
Meanwhile, “intensive agriculture and agribusinesses contribute negatively to climate change, reflecting the wider nexus between trafficking in persons, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis,” she writes.
The protection of all workers and their families “is essential to prevent trafficking,” she says, urging governments to, among other urgent actions: “Strengthen the capacity of trade unions, civil society organizations and human rights defenders to support agricultural workers, including through effective protection of rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly and to collective organizing and collective bargaining, without discrimination.”
The Special Rapporteur’s report was bolstered by a submission from the Solidarity Center related to the conditions for migrant workers in Jordan’s agriculture sector. The submission noted:
Migrant workers work very long hours in hazardous conditions that lack occupational, safety and health (OSH) standards, medical care and overtime compensation. Forced overtime is an indicator of forced labor under ILO standards. The agricultural sector in general is an informal economy sector, and the work is usually temporary or seasonal. Agricultural areas are isolated and far from service centers; therefore, agricultural workers who suffer from labor and human rights violations do not have access to justice. Forced labor and wage theft are common violations, although usually not reported because of limited access to justice, absence of labor inspection and fears of retaliation and other threats workers face, especially undocumented or irregular workers. Because these workers were not recognized as workers under Jordanian labor law until May 2021, they lacked access to labor courts and were forced to file complaints through civil courts, which do not exempt court fees, making this an inaccessible complaint process for agricultural workers.
The kafala system requires migrant workers to be fully reliant on their employers for legal status. In the case that an employer does not renew a work permit, the worker is punished with deportation and a ban from returning to Jordan for three years. Workers are often deported without receiving their owed wages and other compensation–a form of wage theft, which is also an ILO indicator of forced labor. In cases where agricultural workers leave a workplace to escape harassment, rights violations and forced labor without reporting such violations, they are subject to an overstay fine, which is 1.5 Jordanian dinars per day (approximately $2) and they are subject to detention and false or retaliatory theft accusations by their employers, essentially becoming undocumented workers. Migrant workers rarely if ever report violations, fearing employer harassment or retaliation. Undocumented workers are victims of exploitation by brokers and fixers who charge excessive fees for work permits. A Syrian woman worker said, “Syrian agricultural workers’ wages are the lowest not because they accept to work for low wages but because the shaweesh (the middleman) takes a percentage of their wages.”
The Special Rapporteur’s report cited these examples and supported the Solidarity Center’s conclusion in its submission: “Trade unions are important to combat forced labor and other forms of labor trafficking and exploitation, and to raise workers’ awareness about their rights and the available services and access to justice channels.
“The explicit exclusion of both migrant workers and workers in the agricultural sector is a violation of these workers’ fundamental right to freedom of association under the Constitution of Jordan and international human and labor rights as enshrined in the ICCPR, ICESCR and ILO Conventions 87 and 98. The right to freedom of association is fundamental in a workers’ ability to advocate for her/his own rights, protect themselves from forced labor, and ensure protections from GBVH, and other occupational hazards.”
A significant number of migrant workers worldwide are not paid for work performed, and legal remedies to recover them are few. But new policies have proven effective in ensuring migrant workers are treated fairly, a global panel of experts said yesterday.
“Paying workers their wages in full and on time is the basic bargain in employment relationships—when someone works, they do so in exchange for payment from an employer. Yet, for many of the 169 million migrant workers around the world this is not their experience,” said Neha Misra, Solidarity Center global lead on migration and human trafficking. “This is not a simple issue of wage arrears, like a clerical error. This is THEFT.”
Misra co-moderated Innovative Strategies for Improving Migrant Workers Access to Justice for Wage Theft, a panel bringing together migrant worker advocates from Australia, Canada, Colombia and the United States to share promising practices championed by labor and migrant worker rights advocates and adopted by governments and employers. Jeff Vogt, director of the International Lawyers Assisting Workers (ILAW) Network, was co-moderator.
“We need to educate and motivate governments to take action to remedy wage theft, including in supply chains,” said Laurie Berg, co-executive director of the Migrant Justice Institute which, along with Solidarity Center and ILAW, a Solidarity Center project, sponsored the event.
Freedom to Form Unions Key to Ending Wage Theft
Few migrant workers are covered by labor laws, and an overarching solution to the scourge of wage theft is for governments to provide migrant workers access to these fundamental protections—and that includes the ability to freely form unions, an internationally recognized right that most governments refuse to extend to migrant workers.
Speaking on the panel, Bassina Farbenblum, Migrant Justice Institute co-executive director, ourlined additional concrete measures to address wage theft, drawing on examples undertaken in cities and countries around the world. These include shifting the burden of proof to employers in wage claims—such as requiring the employer to demonstrate it paid the worker correctly—to establishing financial repercussions for employers who withhold wages or ignore judgments favorable to workers. Migrant workers often fear deportation or other forms of employer retaliation if they file wage claims, said Farbenblum. Solutions include allowing migrant workers to change employers without losing their visa, and allowing them to file claims after they leave their job — by permitting temporary stay in the country to pursue wage claims or enabling them to file claims from their origin country.
The project launches a new phase in September, with the formation of a community of practice that will develop policy guides on reform targets to enable advocates to push for law and policy reform, said Berg. The guide will set out a variety of models and examples where reform has been implemented.
Canada, Colombia Examples to End Wage Theft
Panelists Amanda Aziz, a lawyer at the Migrant Workers Center in Canada, and Angélica Palacios Martínez at the Solidarity Center in Colombia, detailed specific initiatives in their countries to end wage theft.
In Canada, where migrant workers’ work visas are tied to specific employers in temporary migration schemes, rights advocates campaigned to establish an open work permit program in 2019 that applies to vulnerable workers with valid permits. The ability to move freely to another job allows them to escape abusive work situations, said Aziz. Similar systems in which migrant worker visas are valid only for one employer, such as the kafala sponsorship system in Arabian Gulf countries that ties migrant workers to their employers and guestworker programs in the United States that do the same, effectively deny migrant workers fundamental rights and fuels abuse like wage theft.
Martínez described how the recent influx of Venezuelan migrant workers to Colombia makes it easy for employers to exploit a vulnerable workforce. Many seek jobs through platform delivery companies such as Rappi, which effectively tells workers if they do not like conditions, they can leave because other workers will take their jobs, she said. While Colombian workers in the formal sector work up to 48 hours a week, migrant workers must work far more because they are paid so little, she said.
The workers formed a union, UNIDAPP, and took their demands for decent work to the labor minister. They also won a court decision that forced Rappi to pay wages they owed workers.
“We’re looking for equality of the treatment of all workers in the country,” Martínez said.
Also speaking on the panel, Ruth Silver-Taube at the Santa Clara University School of Law described how advocacy efforts of a wage theft coalition won a series of victories that included barring governments in Santa Clara County, San Jose, and other nearby cities from contracting with employers who have outstanding wage theft judgments.
When addressing migration, governments must focus on human rights: “When you prioritize human rights, you naturally shift from criminalization and focus on rights-based approaches,” says Mishka Pillay, a migration and lived experience advocate and campaigner.
“Migration is historical, it’s natural it’s been here for centuries—and it needs to be normalized by countries.”
Approved by United Nations member states in 2018, the Global Compact for Migration reaffirms countries’ commitment to respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights for all migrants. In May, the International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) will assess progress on the compact and the Spotlight Report seeks to ensure that grassroots migrant perspectives on progress and challenges are central to the discussions.
“Morally and ethically it is imperative to listen to people’s lived experiences. Government needs to listen and learn how migration is affecting real people,” says Pillay, an author in the report.
The Global Coalition on Migration, which includes the Solidarity Center, and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung institute, released the report. Today’s launch emphasized the importance of migrants’ agency, including the agency of migrant workers, in the policy and process decisions that affect their lives, including in their workplaces.
Decent Work Key to Addressing Migration
A focus on decent work in origin countries “is necessary to break cycles of exploitation and prevent labor migration pathways from perpetuating global power and wealth imbalances,” writes Neha Misra, Solidarity Center global lead for migration and human trafficking. Misra co-authored the Spotlight Report article, “People Not Profit: Coherent Migration Pathways Centered in Human Rights and Decent Work for All.”
“For too long, failed foreign and trade policies have prioritized the interests of corporations and low-wage, export-oriented growth while actively undermining democracy and accountability, contributing to the push factors driving people to migrate,” the article states.
Shannon Lederer, AFL-CIO director of immigration policy and Yanira Merino, president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), are co-authors.
Among the report’s recommendations:
Migrant workers, regardless of status, must have rights in line with international labor standards for all workers
Migrants must have rights at international borders
There must be alternatives to detention of migrants
Migrants must have access to public services and social protections, regardless of status
Coherent policies must be developed for those migrating due to climate related factors
Countries must adopt regularization policies and rights-based regular migration channels—that allow migrants the freedom to move, settle, work and fully participate in society—over expanding temporary or circular work programs. Countries should promote regular migration pathways that ensure full worker rights, facilitate social and family cohesion, and provide options for permanent residence and meaningful participation in civic life.
Commenting on the report during the panel discussion, Fernando de la Mora, who is part of IMRF discussions through the Economic, Social, Human Rights and Humanitarian Section of Mexico’s UN mission, reiterated his government’s support for a commitment to decent work in origin and destination countries, and summed up the report’s goals this way:
Millions of workers around the world engage in paid labor—yet do not receive their wages. In addition, getting employers to pay workers what they are owed often is difficult—especially for those who have migrated for work, according to a new report from the Migrant Justice Institute.
The report draws on a year of global consultations and analysis across all regions, identifying common drivers of wage theft to propose specific, practical reforms that can underpin global, national and local wage theft campaigns. It is co-authored by Migrant Justice Institute Co-Executive Director Bassina Farbenblum.
Wage theft—which also includes being paid less than the minimum wage, or not being compensated for overtime or sick leave—increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for migrant workers who were required to return to their home countries at the start of the pandemic and who then had no recourse for obtaining their unpaid wages.
But the magnitude of wage theft prior to the pandemic makes clear it happens by design.
“Wage theft is not just the result of a few bad employers. It’s part of a business model in many supply chains,” said Elizabeth Frantz at the Open Society Foundations. Frantz moderated a Migrant Justice Institute virtual panel December 7 to launch the report. (Watch the full event here.) OSF funded the report and virtual panel.
Speaking at the event, Jill Wells, with Engineers Against Poverty, described how a complex system of supply chain contracting in Qatar, where she worked on construction for the 2022 World Cup, often led to wage theft for migrant workers. Without laws and enforcement mechanisms to ensure migrant workers get compensated, even private organizations can only go so far to assist migrant workers, said Ben Harkins at the International Labor Organization (ILO), which has established Migrant Resource Centers in several Asian countries.
“Let’s be clear—this is not just a simple issue of wage arrears as many try to classify the issue, as if it’s just a clerical error. This is theft. And it’s outrageously common and getting worse during the pandemic,” said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, who took part in the panel. The Solidarity Center and the International Lawyers Assisting Workers (ILAW) network supported the report and organized the regional consultations.
A big barrier to accessing justice is migrant workers’ fear of employer retaliation. “Most migrant workers are unlikely to file a claim because they fear being deported, losing their job or other forms of retaliation,” the report says.
Although the report finds no single solution will ensure migrant workers receive their due compensation or can access justice if they do not, it details measures government officials and employers should take. For instance, migrant workers should receive permission to stay in country to pursue wage claims. If they return home without pay, they should be able to lodge wage claims through video testimony or online courts.
Because the system generally favors employers, migrant workers are forced to prove their claims, and it is extremely difficult for migrant workers to provide evidence of their work and the unpaid wages. The report recommends shifting the burden of proof to employers with legal presumptions in workers’ favor regarding duration of employment hours worked, wages owed and so on.
Holding employers accountable also is essential. “Employers facing a wage judgment simply liquidate or refuse to pay. They won’t be held responsible by suppliers or contractors,” said Berg. The report lists options for enforcing a determination and collecting payment, such as holding licensing of employers, deregistering a business and suspending orders until workers receive what they are owed.
Freedom to Form Unions Key to Migrant Worker Rights
Governments must extend labor law coverage to all workers, according to the report. Most migrant workers are not protected by labor laws, which establish minimum wages, job safety and health guidelines, and social protection coverage like paid sick leave and time off. And, most migrant workers are prohibited from forming unions to collectively champion decent working conditions.
The most marginalized workers are especially vulnerable to wage theft, and debt incurred when they are unpaid renders them vulnerable to forced labor, said Franz.
“This study focuses on initiatives by governments and state actors, but recognizes that often those mechanisms just aren’t enough,” said Bader-Blau. “To truly recover stolen wages and ensure migrant worker justice, this has to be combined with collective action of migrant workers around the world.”
Fundamentally, says Bader-Blau, “We must continue to support freedom of association, the right to organize and collectively bargain for all workers regardless of their nationality, gender, sector or immigration status as the primary mechanism to prevent and address rampant wage theft of migrant workers.”
Says Frantz: “It’s clearly time for business and government to recognize that it is ethically unacceptable to let the risks and burdens of wage recovery lie with migrant workers rather than business and government.”
Panel participants also included Terri Gerstein from the Harvard Labor and Worklife program; Douglas Maclean, Justice Without Borders; and Apolinar Tolentino, Building and Wood Working International.
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