The freedom from slavery is one of our absolute human rights that cannot be restricted, yet the practice of modern-day slavery is widespread and hidden in plain sight. Many workers leave home when they are given false promises of a decent salary and good working conditions, only to find out later that they will be working very long hours for wages that are barely above the poverty line. Exploitative terms of employment, laws that do not afford adequate protection and human trafficking all contribute towards modern-day slavery.
To understand this problem in detail, we first need to understand who migrant workers are. The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICMW) has defined migrant workers to be any person who is paid to work in a country where they are not a citizen. An estimated 9.9 million people are migrant workers within the ASEAN region while the estimate is around 164 million globally. Citizens of countries such as Nepal, Indonesia, and the Philippines often leave their countries to find work because of poverty, low economic growth, or a lack of political stability in the country. Some countries in the Asia-Pacific region such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, rely on imported labour to fill low-wage, laborious jobs which are not desirable to its citizens.
Consequently, this greatly contributes to the exploitation of migrant workers. Not only does the work pay poorly and impose long working hours without days off, but it is often dangerous or affects the workers’ health. There are also instances where employers withhold the workers’ passports, confine them to the workplace, physically abuse them, or refuse to pay their wages. On top of that, countries may impose hefty fees for visas and medical checks. Unethical recruitment agencies tend to prey on migrants by misleading them about the type of work and salary they could be making in the host country and charging exorbitant fees that put the workers in debt bondage – these are heavy debts that are difficult to pay off with low wages, which also forces them to work. In some cases, many migrant workers have been trafficked without their knowledge, forced into a marriage, or are still children.
The working conditions faced by many migrant workers are the very definition of modern slavery. Modern-day slavery, also known as institutional slavery, refers to the practices of debt bondage, forced labour, forced marriage, and human trafficking to exploit a person for financial or personal gain. The International Labor Organization estimates that 21 million people are victims of modern-day slavery globally. It’s important to note that the ICMW has only been ratified in 54 countries, most of which are sending countries. This means that the vast majority of host countries are not obligated to make legislative changes to improve working conditions for migrant workers. The commodification of labour by countries, recruitment agencies, and traffickers alike have turned migrant workers into objects to be bought and sold for profit.
Photo from Samui Times.