Opinion Column: Yoshiteru Uramoto, ILO Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific
On a recent trip to Cambodia I met a group of young people who were eager to pursue a better life by going to work abroad, although they were concerned that many migrant workers faced unfair treatment. I told them that the International Labor Organization (ILO) was working on making labor migration safer and more profitable. “That’s good,” one of them said. “We don’t want Naga World [the local casino] when we go abroad, we just want fair treatment.”
Fair treatment, without having to gamble with their future or even their physical safety, is what all migrant workers want. It is also the essence of the ILO’s fair migration agenda. We want to see labor migration create a “triple win” for workers, employers and governments, especially as this region moves towards the introduction of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) at the end of 2015.
However, the current gaps in legislative protection and the implementation of measures to regulate labor migration mean that all migrant workers have to gamble. And that gamble begins before they even leave home.
Potential migrant workers often borrow money or put up security (like deeds to land or a house) to pay recruitment or brokerage costs, so they are in debt even before they leave their home country. They gamble that they will be migrating safely to a good job.
When arriving in the host country, migrant workers, even those with correct documentation, often find themselves the victims of extortion at border checkpoints. They may have to pay a bribe, which means the amount of money they are gambling on their migration has increased, making them less likely to complain, or cut their stay short, if the job, conditions or pay they are offered is not what they were promised.
Such exploitation is not unusual; for many migrant workers in the ASEAN region, it is a very real risk. An ILO study found that one in six workers in the Thai fishing sector worked in conditions of forced labor. A recent report by the NGO Verité found even stronger indications of forced labor in Malaysia’s electronics industry.
So the migrant workers once again gamble that their host country will take care of them, by providing labor inspections, insurance and social security, access to justice and recourse if they are underpaid, exploited or injured at work. But current systems often favor recruiters and employers. And xenophobia, fear, myths and untruths dominate the public debate, meaning that those who should help migrant workers — police, government services — are not always willing to assist.