South Asia: Problems faced by migrant workers

Professor Sridhar K. Khatri

Executive Director South Asia Centre for Policy Studies (SACEPS)

Migrant workers are often subjected to neglect, harassment and violation of rights both in the sending and receiving countries since sending states are reluctant to take up the issue seriously for fear of loss of labour market. Inadequate investment by these states to develop institutional structures to look after the welfare of migrant workers and establish effective regulatory framework to check corruptions and exploitations often makes it appear like the states are acting like freeloaders at the cost of the migrant workers who invest their own resources to bring in so much financial benefits and their newly acquired skills to the region. In the receiving countries, embassies of the South Asian countries are not proactive enough to deal with the problems faced by migrant laborers and in most cases these embassies are ill equipped to handle complaints due to lack of adequate manpower and resources from their home countries.

The real issue is the transparency and accountability in the sending country itself. South Asian countries do not rate very high on the governance scale, and where corruption is concerned there is usually a nexus between bureaucracy and politicians since they are often in collusion to exploit the process for their personal benefit. In Nepal, government officials these days want to go to the Department of Labour than to the Customs Department as it now a most sought after place of employment as there is money to be made from the innocent laborers waiting to go abroad. This example may not be an exception, but the general rule in many South Asian countries.

a) Violations of the rights of the migrant workers

The violations of rights of migrant laborers start at home by agents and recruitment agencies in the sending and these continue in the receiving countries. As most of the migrant workers come from rural areas these people have very little access to and knowledge of pre-departure information. They have to rely on informal agents without official designation, who often operate without the best of intentions. The lack of adequate information and inadequate knowledge of money transaction, customs and culture often leave migrant workers in a quandary in the country of destination. Some of the common problems faced by them include: seizure of personal documents; contract substitution or irregular job placement that leaves them employed in a job they are least suited; deteriorating wage rates and work conditions that may lead to workers facing non-payment, or irregular payment, or lack of payment for overtime; work without holidays; lack of health care; and poor accommodations.

The question of access to justice system of migrant workers is a matter of serious concern. In the whole discourse on labor migration, an UNIFEM study on Nepal found that the rights based approach was missing and women, in particular, were looked upon as sexual symbols. Amazingly it was found 67 percent of the decision makers admit that they don’t have knowledge of migrant workers, not just women. This may be the common scenario of the South Asian justice system as well.

The use of terminology for protection of migrant workers is very tricky, especially when it comes to women migrant workers. In some countries, the concept of protection has been used to bar the women from going out to seek meaningful employment. Crucial distinction is often not made between protecting the migrant women workers and migrant women’s right of employment and choice of profession.29 In the past, the NGOs in Bangladesh concentrated too much on trafficking and didn’t give adequate attention on the women’s right to migrate. This is a long-drawn struggle with governments and NGOs in the region. The migration discourse that was camouflaged with trafficking discourse is something that has been overcome in Bangladesh and the same can be done in other South Asian countries as well. In Bangladesh, whoever was going as a labour migrant were treated as trafficking person, with the women migrants suffering the consequences. When the men migrants faced problem, it was seen as a labour rights violation. When a woman faced problem, it was seen as a trafficking problem. The dichotomy that ‘men migrate and women traffic’ has to be broken in the mindset of people when dealing with migration.30

Additionally, as far as women migration is concerned, the line between migration and trafficking has been blurred, especially for the poor people. The hope of coming out of poverty is so strong that families even ask the girls to go abroad without even without knowing where they are going or what they will be doing.31

The migrant workers do not have any mechanisms to protect their interest in the receiving countries since there is no scope for bargaining between employer and employee, including the right to form unions. These are some basic right established in the 1990 UN conventions. (See, section on “Status of Legal Framework on Labour Migration” pp. 22-27). They are some of the ideals that should go into workers protection. And upon return hardly any of the South Asian states have made preparation for rehabilitation of the workers. There is also an absence of access to information and credit so that the money they bring can be put to good use.

b) Limited role of trade unions in South Asia

In most of the countries in South Asia there is less and less concern over labour rights as trade unions are usually taken as trouble shooters, and receive negligible attention of the concerned authorities. The workers in the region usually have weak social status, which has led the employers and governments to treat unions as less than equal partners in progress, even after economic liberalization in the region. This is due to a number of factors. First is the nature of the trade unions themselves. In this sense what is said of the Indian Trade Union Movement (ITUM) could be applied to other trade unions in South Asia as well. The basic characteristics are that they are: often are close to political parties; have a narrow membership base; function with obsolete strategies influenced by over-aged leaders on the basis of personalized power oriented leadership; hold confrontationist attitude; have non-existent second tier leadership; demonstrate negligible gender representation; and are faced with declining membership and power base. Second, although there are laws to protect the workmen in South Asia, they do not cover those unable to prove their status as a workman. For example, India has about 200 legislations to cover the workmen, but the laws do not cover a significant portion of the laborers since over 90 percent of them are in the informal sector without any documentation that could prove their status as a workman/employee. Third, government policies regarding workers’ related programmes/activities are directed are workers in the organized sector. This is true of the trade unions as well since it preoccupied in the organized (formal) sector. And lastly, at the regional level, trade unions have failed to make collective efforts to see that labour issues are included in the SAARC agenda and other regional activities. The South Asia Regional Trade Union Congress (SARTUC), the only trade union at the regional level, exists more on paper than in practice. South Asian countries would usually be on a weak footing to argue collective bargaining rights in the receiving countries since such practices are weak in the countries of origin.

The mindset of governments in both the sending and receiving countries is an additional source of problem. Sending governments usually see migration as ‘manpower export’, thus treating the issue as any other commodity to be exported. Migration is driven by ‘pull’ and ‘push’ factor, where the ‘pull’ factor is determined by the needs of the market place. Another misused concept is ‘illegal migrants’, which is used by receiving countries to refer to irregular or undocumented laborers. Human beings can’t be ‘exported’ as commodities or called ‘illegal’. What is important is to see why they have become undocumented laborers in order to develop appropriate policy formulation.

Courtesy: South Asia Centre for Policy Studies (SACEPS) Paper No 15 on “Labor Migration, Employment and Poverty Alleviation in South Asia. Thanks SACEPS-ed.

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I agree


  • Posted on - 2009-08-08    by     bahadur
  • A very well researched and excellent article. Prof. Khatri's erudition needs to be complimented once again.