Safeguarding Rights for Migrant Workers: A New Frontier for CSR?

    Across the ten member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) labour migration is being accelerated by the new ASEAN Economic Community with its’ specific objective of full integration into the global economy supported by the free flow of labour.

    by Mark Leighton  [email protected]

    Asia and the Pacific is the world’s most economically dynamic region. More than 30 million migrant workers contribute to the economies of the region – in countries of destination, through financial remittances they send home, and from the skills and knowledge they take with them if they eventually return to their countries of origin. In destination countries many migrants fill labour market niches by doing jobs that nationals do not want or cannot fill. Studies of recruitment processes and working conditions however, particularly for lower-skilled migrants, consistently reveal indicators of abuse associated with labour exploitation.

    Across the ten member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) labour migration is being accelerated by the new ASEAN Economic Community with its’ specific objective of full integration into the global economy supported by the free flow of labour.

    ASEAN is already a major hub for migrant workers: 14 million migrant workers have travelled to work in other countries across the globe and some 9.5 million foreign migrant workers are working within ASEAN, 48% of whom are women. Malaysia and Singapore for example draw on the region to fulfill their labour needs, with more than 1 million Indonesians in Malaysia and nearly 400,000 Malaysians in Singapore. Thailand hosts between 2.5 million to 3 million migrant workers, overwhelmingly from neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia.

    Important guidance for companies seeking to understand and address risks to migrant workers is found in the Dhaka Principles for Migration with Dignity, developed over two years of multi-stakeholder consultation led by the Institute for Human Rights and Business and launched in December 2012. The Dhaka Principles are becoming a global reference point for companies, governments, civil society and inter-governmental organisations in addressing responsibilities towards migrant workers.

    Based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and core ILO standards, the Dhaka Principles are a set of human rights based principles intended to enhance respect for the rights of migrant workers from the moment of recruitment, during employment and through to further employment or safe return to home countries. They are intended for use by all industry sectors and in any country where workers migrate either inwards or outwards. The Principles aim to ensure that migrant workers receive fair and responsible treatment during both the recruitment and employment stages of their engagement with employers. 

    The Dhaka Principles are built around two core and ten specific principles:

    Core Principle A – All workers are treated equally and without discrimination.

    Core Principle B – All workers enjoy the protection of employment law.

    • Principle 1 – No fees are charged to migrant workers. The employer should bear the full costs of recruitment and placement.
    • Principle 2 – All migrant worker contracts are clear and transparent. Migrant workers should be provided with written contracts in a language each worker understands, with all terms and conditions explained clearly, and the worker’s assent obtained without coercion.
    • Principle 3 – Policies and procedures are inclusive. Migrant workers’ rights should be explicitly referred to in employer and migrant recruiter policy statements, relevant operational policies and procedures.
    • Principle 4 – No migrant workers’ passports or identity documents are retained. Migrant workers should have free and complete access to their own passport, identity documents, and residency papers, and enjoy freedom of movement.
    • Principle 5 – Wages are paid regularly, directly and on time. Migrant workers should be paid what they are due on time, regularly and directly.
    • Principle 6 – The right to worker representation is respected. Migrant workers should have the same rights to join and form trade unions and to bargain collectively as other workers.
    • Principle 7 – Working conditions are safe and decent. Migrant workers should enjoy safe and decent conditions of work, free from harassment, any form of intimidation or inhuman treatment. They should receive adequate health and safety provision and training in relevant languages.
    • Principle 8 – Living conditions are safe and decent. Migrant workers should enjoy safe and hygienic living conditions, and safe transport between the workplace and their accommodation. Migrant workers should not be denied freedom of movement, or confined to their living quarters.
    • Principle 9 – Access to a remedy is provided. Migrant workers should have access to judicial remedy and to credible grievance mechanisms, without fear of recrimination or dismissal.
    • Principle 10 – Freedom to change employment is respected, and safe, timely return is guaranteed. Migrant workers should be guaranteed provision for return home on contract completion and in exceptional situations. They should not, however, be prevented from seeking or changing employment in the host country on completion of first contract or after two years, whichever is less.

    Addressing the challenges specific to migrant workers is not an easy exercise for companies. Companies must identify the extent to which they, and their suppliers, are employing migrant labor, in circumstances in which third parties, including recruitment agencies, often play a critical role. Understanding the terms and conditions under which workers were originally recruited is often difficult, for example where recruitment take places far from the work site. At the same time as companies are striving to mitigate risks to migrant workers, they are also under pressure to disclose publically what actions they are taking and how successful these actions are.

    Good practice case studies that document actions by companies to address the dilemmas raised by migrant workers can be found online at the Human Rights and Business Dilemmas Forum, supported by the UN Global Compact and Verisk Maplecroft. Examples from Asia include assisting children left behind by migrant workers (Unilever/China), providing life skills training to migrant workers (Timberland/China), locating factories in rural areas to reduce rural to urban migration (Bata/Thailand) and providing direct remedy to the abuse of migrant workers in the supply chain (Nike/Malaysia).

    For more on this important issue, a specific session at this year’s CSR Asia Summit 2015 will further examine barriers and innovations in safeguarding the rights of migrant workers.

    See you in Kuala Lumpur, 7th to 8th October … !