26 Mar 2012

Long before there were national borders, there have always been people who left their homes to seek a better life.

Long before there were national borders, there have always been people who left their homes to seek a better life. Some were attracted by the promise of wealth i
n cities they had only heard about, some were pushed out of their homes because the land was no longer productive, or a prolonged drought had destroyed a way of life. Others simply left for the sheer adventure such opportunities offered.

Today we know them as migrant labour, expatriate workers, foreign workers, and other, often derogatory, terms. Almost all governments have restrictions on free movement of people across borders. It is fair to say that goods, services, and capital move more easily across borders than do people. Even people who can travel to different countries without visas are welcome only up to a point; after a certain number of days, they must return. If they look for work, they must inform authorities and change their status. Rules are strict in some countries, which make it hard for foreigners to cross their borders. Pragmatic countries have kept borders open for people to come and work under set rules—many do well economically, but those countries also tend to have economies open for trade and investment.

Human beings are not goods or capital; they have rights, which states are obliged to respect and protect under all circumstances. When an individual crosses the border, the host government has the responsibility for his safety and security. While the host government may favour its own nationals on many grounds, it has core minimum obligations that extend to people who are not citizens.

Southeast Asia itself is a multiethnic region, with no country entirely mono-cultural, and each country presenting a mélange of cultures, religions, languages, and ethnicities, which gives the region its dynamism. Some countries in the region, such as Singapore and Malaysia, are labour-importing countries that have a need to support booming economies. Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, as well as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, are among the labour-exporting economies. In the latter cases, many of their citizens seek work abroad even if their home economies are growing rapidly, to seek better comparative pay in predominantly low-paid jobs in factories, on construction sites or in domestic service.

Recorded remittances received by developing countries, estimated to be US$325 billion in 2010, far exceed the volume of official aid flows and constitute more than 10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in many developing countries. Bangladesh receives more income from foreign remittances of overseas workers— estimated US$12 billion in 2012—than from foreign aid or investment. The economic profile of the Philippines is similar, according to World Bank statistics from the Migration and Remittances Handbook 2011.

And yet, migrant workers often operate without protection and are frequently denied basic liberties. Exploitation and abuse of rights can be found throughout the employment cycle during recruitment, during employment and upon return. Their exploitation begins at the time they apply for jobs—recruitment agencies in home countries levy exorbitant fees and charges on the workers, who take out loans at onerous rates of interest to cover these costs. Once overseas migrants often find that the work, terms pay and conditions are not what they were led to expect. Employers often retain their passports and other documents, restricting their mobility. Their working hours tend to be long, sometimes exceeding legal limits. Wages are sometimes not paid on time or paid at all. Due process is not followed if their employment is terminated. If they are hurt or sick, medical care is not necessarily free of cost. Women migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence. If a contractor goes bankrupt, workers are left without any resources in a country where they may not be familiar with the local customs, language, legal processes, and thus become susceptible to criminal gangs. Their contracts often exclude clauses on their return passage. Should the political situation worsen, as in many Middle East countries last year, some employers wash their hands off the problem. Without any evacuation plan, the responsibility falls on their home states, international organisations, or relief agencies.

Human beings are not goods or capital; they have rights, which states are obliged to respect and protect under all circumstances.

In recent years, scrutiny of business conduct in recruiting migrant workers has increased, with major international human rights organisations publishing reports about the workers’ vulnerability in countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Civil society organisations have run campaigns targeting high-profile projects that are dependent on migrant labour. Labour-exporting countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Bangladesh have set up government departments and ministries to oversee the welfare of their citizens who work abroad.

Forward-thinking employers are aware of the situation, and they wish to eliminate practices that are unconscionable or sometimes violate the law. Increasingly businesses are realising the need to extend due diligence regarding business rights further into their supply chains beyond their immediate, or tier one suppliers, to ensure that conduct is proper and rights are protected. Lack of scrutiny of these relationships can negate many of the efforts companies are making around better practice generally. A worker in a situation of debt bondage engendered by an unregulated recruitment process is being exploited and is vulnerable to further abuse even if their subsequent employment conforms to expected codes. The benefits of remittances to both the worker and country of origin are also seriously eroded by exploitation of migrants at all stages of the employment cycle.

At the Institute for Human Rights and Business, we have initiated a multi-year process with leading employers, workers’ organisations, migrants’ rights organisations, academics, lawyers, and governments, to develop the Dhaka Principles for Migration with Dignity. The underlying idea is based on the recognition that migrant workers remain among the most exploited workforce globally due to widespread irresponsible practices during both their recruitment and subsequent employment. Leadership from the private sector in cooperation with government and civil society could dramatically improve standards of worker protection. Our Business and Migration programme engaged the private sector and other critical stakeholders with the aim of raising standards of protection for vulnerable workers. These Principles follow consultations in London, Mauritius, and Dhaka over the past two years.

We see these Principles as important and necessary steps. We expect most responsible companies to welcome these principles and use them as a basis to develop their own codes and guidelines. We also expect governments—particularly labour-exporting governments—to support these principles and include them in bilateral agreements with receiving countries. But it is also in the interest of labour-importing countries to support these principles. Human rights have no boundaries, and governments and businesses need to recognise that. Regardless of geography or industry sector, migrant workers’ rights must be protected in accordance with national law and international labour standards. Governments, business and civil society need to work together to restore migrant workers’ dignity and decency. Given the scope of their contribution to the global economy, having their rights and dignity protected is the least these migrant workers should expect in return.

The Dhaka Principles

  • Workers should not have to pay recruitment fees;
  • Contracts should be clear and transparent;
  • Employers should not retain workers’ passports and other identification documents;
  • Migrant workers, even contractual employees, should be included in all codes of conduct and other regulations that protect workers;
  • There should be no discrimination against migrant workers on grounds of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or any other factor, in accordance with laws and standards
  • Compensation should be fair and paid directly to migrant workers;
  • Migrant workers should enjoy the same rights of representation and free association as enjoyed by other workers in the country;
  • Migrant workers should have the same right to access grievance mechanisms as other workers;
  • Migrant workers should have access to health and safety cover and training available to local workers, and material made available to them should be in their language; and
  • Migrant workers’ contracts should include the provision of safe and timely return to their home country, with full benefits paid, at the end of the contract, and even during the contract, in the event of an emergency.

Frances House is Director-Programmes at the Institute for Human Rights and Business, and leads its work on migrant workers.

Salil Tripathi is Director-Policy at the Institute for Human Rights and Business.

The website is http://www.ihrb.org