On this year’s July 30 World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, a coalition of rights organizations including the Solidarity Center are highlighting widespread wage theft perpetrated against Southeast Asia’s migrant workers. Although this form of labor exploitation has been thrown into stark relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a long-standing problem in the region.

“Wage theft is a crime against humanity. If the global pandemic can be overcome, why not wage theft?” says Plantation Rural Education and Development Organization (PREDO) Sri Lanka Executive Director Michael Joachim.

The Justice for Wage Theft campaign is demanding governments address wage theft perpetrated against millions of migrant workers in the wake of the pandemic—including those who voluntarily returned home or were forcibly repatriated, often after employers unilaterally severed their contracts and stopped paying them their earned wages. Many such returnees now find themselves trapped in debt bondage to labor recruiters to whom they owe money on interrupted contracts and, sometimes, for emergency air fare, putting them at risk of labor exploitation. Debt bondage is one of the most prevalent forms of forced labor worldwide.

“The campaign is asking that indebted returnees be protected from exploitation and that migrant workers who returned home in fear for their lives receive their earned wages for work they completed,” says regional migrant rights expert and Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer Miyuru Guansinghe.

The Justice for Wage Theft’s website highlights coalition members’ work and provides a mechanism for collecting wage theft cases and signatures on a public petition for a just compensation mechanism. Coalition members are ASEAN Services Employees Trade Union Council (ASETUC), Cross-Regional Center for Refugees and Migrants (CCRM), Lawyers Beyond Borders, Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), South Asian Regional Trade Union Council (SARTUC) and the Solidarity Center.

In two reports covering the period December 2019 through June 2021, the campaign documented more than 1,800 wage theft cases perpetrated against people migrating from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines to work in agricultural, domestic, construction and other sectors in Bahrain, China, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Oman, Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates. Volumes 1 and 2 of “Crying Out for Justice: Wage Theft against Migrant Workers” include hundreds of cases identified by the Solidarity Center during direct interviews with affected workers in five Sri Lankan districts.

Wage theft is an indicator of forced labor under International Labor Organization (ILO) standards, says MFA. Under ILO standards, states must develop wage-theft-eradication measures and effective justice mechanisms. Workers are also entitled to effective remedies—including prosecution of employers under criminal law, and payment of earned wages and other compensation, and governments must ensure workers’ wages are paid regularly and a final settlement of all wages is effected upon termination of an employment contract.

Forced labor is the most common result of human trafficking, with an estimated 25 million people trapped in often slave-like conditions. A United Nations report last year found that the percentage of trafficking victims exploited for forced labor is increasing over time and that surveyed countries reported a threefold increase in the number of trafficking victims from 2003 through 2018. Forced labor generates up to $150 billion a year in illegal profits for traffickers—including $51.2 billion made illegally from forced labor exploitation in domestic work, agriculture, forestry, fishing, construction, manufacturing, mining, utilities and other industries, says the International Labor Organization (ILO).

“Human trafficking is a violation that should have no place in civilized society, ” says Saviya Development Foundation Training and Program Director Thushara Senanayaka.

The Justice for Wage Theft campaign is an offshoot of MFA’s regional network of nongovernmental organizations, associations and trade unions of migrant workers, and individual advocates in Asia who are working to protect migrant worker rights and welfare. Such initiatives include efforts in coalition across the globe to improve COVID-19 vaccination access for migrant workers and their family members.

You can support the Justice for Wage Theft campaign by completing its online petition, “Say Yes to Justice!”

‘Information Is the Key’: Empowering Kyrgyzstan’s Young Workers

‘Information Is the Key’: Empowering Kyrgyzstan’s Young Workers

To promote youth civic engagement and the fair employment of women, workers with disabilities and those migrating outside the country to earn a living, the Solidarity Center’s second annual School of Young Leaders in Bishkek educated dozens of young people in mid-September about their protections under the country’s labor code, with a special focus on disability rights. Event attendees—selected from around the country based on a writing competition—included youth and mentors with disabilities.

“This is my first experience in the framework of an inclusive society—where no one divides into some groups, everyone supports each other, accepts each other equally and shares their experiences,” said Sezim Tolomusheva, organizing and socioeconomic protection lead specialist for the Union of Textile Workers of Kyrgyzstan.

During a session covering how to engage traditional and social media, local disability-rights activist and blogger Askar Turdugulov encouraged attendees to pursue their goals despite limitations, such as the spinal injury that impaired his ability to walk from age 18.

“This [event] is a bright example in the promotion of the principle of ‘equal opportunities for all’ that gives equal labor rights for all people, regardless of their origin, gender or health status,” said Turdugulov.

Participating NGOs, trade unions and government agencies also provided young attendees—many of whom work directly to aid migrant workers and some of whom may one day migrate for work—with information about common challenges for migrant workers, the protective role of the Kyrgyz Migrant Workers’ Trade Union, the importance of pre-departure trainings and information about labor laws in destination countries. Other highlights included discussion on the rights of women at work under national legislation and the International Labor Organization’s 2019 Convention: Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the World of Work (C190). NGOs contributing expertise to the event included the “Equal Opportunities” Social Center and the Public Association of Girls with Disabilities, Nazik-Kyz.

Youth un- and under-employment in Kyrgyzstan stands at 55 percent. Most young people feel forced to migrate in search of work, primarily to Russia and Kazakhstan, although also further to South Korea, Turkey or other countries. Kyrgyz migrant workers provide more than one-third of the Central Asian country’s GDP in money they send home. When workers migrate from Kyrgyzstan, they often face discrimination, exploitation and unsafe working conditions. Many are at risk of being trafficked and subjected to forced labor.

Kyrgyzstan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on February 7, 2019. The primary work needed for CRPD implementation will be expanding access for people with disabilities to education, justice and employment opportunities, physical therapy and rehabilitation services, medical and social assistance, and ensuring their free movement through promotion of universal design.

Kenya, Kuwait Unions Sign Migrant Workers’ Agreement

Kenya, Kuwait Unions Sign Migrant Workers’ Agreement

The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) and the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) signed a cooperative agreement last week in Kuwait City, formalizing the federations’ effort to jointly address issues affecting workers who migrate from Kenya to Kuwait for employment.

“It is crucial to bring together unions from countries on both ends of the migration spectrum to promote a deeper understanding of the challenges workers face along their journey and into the workplace,” said Solidarity Center Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs Hind Cherrouk. “This agreement, which affirms the rights of migrant workers from Kenya in Kuwait, is an important step forward in that regard.”

Millions of migrant workers are trapped in conditions of forced labor and human trafficking around the world, in part as a result of being lied to by labor brokers about the wages and working conditions they should expect. Of the estimated 150 million migrant workers globally, some 67 million labor as domestic workers—83 percent of whom are women—often in isolation and at risk of exploitation and abuse.

The majority of some 34 million Africans are migrants move across borders in search of decent work—jobs that pay a living wage, offer safe working conditions and fair treatment. Often they find employers who seek to exploit them—refusing to pay their wages, forcing them to work long hours for little or no pay, and even physically abusing them. Kenyan women signing on for domestic work in Saudi Arabia, for example, were told they would receive 23,000 Kenya shillings ($221) a month, only to find upon their arrival that the pay was significantly less and the working and living conditions inhumane. Through the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA), COTU-K is supporting a multi-year effort to protect domestic workers migrating from the coastal area surrounding the city of Mombasa to homes in the Middle East.

Unions around the globe are increasingly taking joint action to create community and workplace-based safe migration and counter-trafficking strategies that emphasize prevention, protection and the rule of law. KTUF spearheaded a groundbreaking 2015 domestic worker law that granted enforceable legal rights to 660,000 mostly migrant workers from Asia and Africa working in Kuwait as domestic workers, nannies, cooks and drivers, and urged further protection for migrant workers in Kuwait and other Gulf countries. That same year, unions in Asia and the Gulf signed a landmark memorandum of understanding (MOU) that promoted and outlined steps for coordination among unions in organizing and supporting migrant workers in those regions. The Solidarity Center and its partners in the Americas in 2017 crafted a worker rights agenda for inclusion in the United Nations Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration.

“There is a potentially powerful role for union-to-union, cross-national and, in this case, cross-regional solidarity in protecting the dignity of migrant workers traveling from Africa to the Middle East. The Solidarity Center is proud to be a partner in this process and trade union-centered approach between the trade union movements of Kuwait and Kenya,” said Solidarity Center Director of Africa Programs, Hanad Mohamud.

Shawna Bader-Blau Testimony on Labor Trafficking

Shawna Bader-Blau Testimony on Labor Trafficking

Check out a video of the full testimony by Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau on the widespread use of labor trafficking. Bader-Blau and other expert witnesses testified on Capitol Hill last week at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, “Ending Modern Slavery: What is the Best Way Forward?” where they discussed actions and policies to help end human trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of modern slavery in supply chains around the world. (Read her full testimony here.)

Pin It on Pinterest