ILO: Access to justice often out of reach for migrant workers in South-East Asia

BANGKOK (ILO News) – Migrant workers continue to face major obstacles to lodging and resolving complaints, the ILO finds in a new study on Access to justice for migrant workers in South-East Asia .

Released for the World Day against Trafficking in Persons on 30 July, the report underlines the important link between the lack of effective channels for migrants to denounce abuses and cases of forced labour and human trafficking.

“Migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation is exacerbated by the absence of fair, efficient and accessible means to resolve grievances when they occur”, says Ben Harkins, Technical Officer for the ILO TRIANGLE in ASEAN programme and lead author of the report.

The study is based on complaint case data gathered by Migrant Worker Resource Centres (MRCs) from 2011 to 2015. Detailed information on over 1,000 cases involving more than 7,000 women and men migrant workers was documented in Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam, establishing the largest regional dataset of migrant complaints compiled within South-East Asia.

The results show that some progress has been achieved in increasing access to justice for migrant workers in recent years. Remedies awarded to migrants in the cases resolved by MRCs included US$1.62 million in compensation.


Most common remedies provided by country


In spite of the improvements made, migrant workers continue to face major obstacles to lodging and resolving complaints in all of the locations studied.

In countries of origin, only blatant violations of migrants’ rights are typically rectified, such as collecting recruitment and documentation fees for non-existent jobs. Other forms of abuse that are known to be widespread, including overcharging migrant workers on recruitment fees and misrepresenting the terms of employment, continue to go unchallenged.

The situation in destination countries is similar, though compounded by fears of retaliation, employer-tied visas and work permits and language barriers. As a result, most migrant workers do not risk making a complaint unless their livelihoods or basic dignity as human beings are clearly threatened. It is well-understood by migrants that lodging a grievance is likely to mean the end of their employment, and therefore long-term improvements to wages and working conditions are currently out of reach.

Although compensation is awarded for abuse of migrant workers, the amounts are often far from satisfactory for complainants.

“Most of the “compensation” that was paid to migrant workers in the complaint cases we analysed was just a portion of the money that was due to them in unpaid wages and not actually compensatory for harm suffered,” says Harkins.


Barriers to accessing justice for migrant workers in South-East Asia


Stark differences were also found between women and men in access to justice for labour rights abuses. Due to the informal and unrecognized nature of much of women’s migration and employment within the region, the already limited opportunity that men have to voice their grievances is reduced significantly. Despite targeted efforts to reach women migrants in all of the countries where MRCs operate, the results suggest that the opportunity to lodge complaints remains deeply inequitable in many areas.

The study highlights the critical role played by NGOs and trade unions in offering an access point for migrant workers to seek redress. “These organizations provide the doorway that most migrants walk through when they need assistance”, says Harkins.

Particularly for women migrants, the overwhelming preference for NGO services reveals their importance in reducing the gender gap in access to justice. Over 80 per cent of the women assisted in resolving their complaints went to MRCs managed by local NGOs.


Men and women complainants assisted by type of service provider (%)


Based upon delivery of legal assistance to thousands of migrant workers in South-East Asia, the study finds that there is a substantial and largely unmet demand for fair and responsive remedies. Most migrant workers who are faced with situations of exploitation and abuse seek practical resolutions, such as disbursement of unpaid wages, deployment to destination countries and return of identification documents.

“It is clear that these demands are not adequately met through enforcement of labour and human trafficking laws currently and that greater efforts are needed to ensure that migrant workers are provided with just remedies,” concludes Harkins.