The global recession is causing a heightened sense of job insecurity among millions of migrant workers making them more vulnerable to abuse, say migrant rights advocates.
The slowdown in the global economy has already compelled many companies to retrench workers and stop hiring. The International Labor Organization(ILO) forecasts that the crisis will result in the loss of some 20 million jobs, with migrant workers among the most likely to be retrenched.
"When one is in need, there’s a greater of chance that one will be subject to abuse," says Savino L. Bernardi, director and chaplain of the Apostleship of the Sea-Manila (AOS), a church-based organisation that assists Filipino seafarers.
Ellene Sana, executive director of the Centre for Migrant Advocacy, Philippines, says that the human rights of these workers stand to get compromised because of the economic downturn.
"Migrant workers will be desperate for work and will accept anything just to keep their jobs. When you’re desperate, you lose your sense of dignity. You’ll settle for anything that you can get," she said.
Sana said migrant workers are now likely to be forced to accept lower wages and bad working conditions just to keep their jobs and support their families.
There are about 100 million migrant workers worldwide, most of whom crossed borders to escape poverty in their homelands. Their remittances - which amount to 250 billion US dollars - provide better lives for the families they left behind and boosted the economies of their homelands
Yet, despite their huge contributions, migrant workers continue to suffer from various abuses - from unpaid salaries to sexual harassment.
Government officials and civil society members who participated in the Second Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) held in Manila last October agreed on the importance of protecting migrant rights. There already are various United Nations and ILO conventions and instruments that promote and protect migrants’ rights.
Women, who comprise half of the total migrant labor population, are more vulnerable because they’re usually employed as domestic workers and entertainers. The informal labour sector is notoriously difficult to monitor and regulate.
Indeed, reports issued by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) last year revealed millions of domestic workers employed in households in the Middle East countries suffering from various kinds of abuses.
The HRW said the domestic workers they interviewed were subject to numerous abuses such as having 18-hour workdays with no days off; physical confinement in the workplace; denial of food; lack of payment for months or years; physical and sexual abuse; and in some cases, forced labor and trafficking.
Most of these domestic workers were from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Ethiopia and the Middle Eastern countries involved were Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Qatar.
"The scarcity of decent work options is a contributing factor to exploitation today," Nisha Varia, HRW’s deputy director of the women’s rights division, said in an e-mail interview with IPS.
"Many migrant domestic workers that I have spoken to would rather stay in their home countries if they could find a good job with good pay. Many of them are afraid of the abuse and exploitation that they may face abroad. But they risk those conditions because there are no other options," Varia said.
With the global meltdown further limiting job options for all workers, Varia believes that migrant workers will become more vulnerable. "People in poverty will have even fewer choices," she said.
Varia proposes that governments of both labor exporting and labour receiving countries establish, monitor and enforce minimum standards in terms of working conditions to prevent exploitation.
HRW is also urging all governments to ratify the UN Migrant Workers Convention, which guarantees migrants’ human rights and promises state protection against abuse by employers, agents and public officials.
Sana said it’s important for labour exporting countries like the Philippines to negotiate and assure better working conditions for their workers. But this is a short term solution and governments should craft policies that will provide more jobs to their own workers so that outmigration becomes an option and not a necessity.
An estimated 11 million Filipinos are currently working overseas, either legally or illegally, making it the biggest labour exporting country in the world. Each year, more than a million Filipinos go overseas, most of them to find work as domestic helpers or in blue-collar jobs.
But many favoured destinations are shutting their doors to migrant workers. Malaysia, this week, banned the hiring of overseas workers in factories, stores and restaurants to hedge itself against the possibility of mass unemployment as its export-oriented industries are hit.
Malaysia which currently employs 2.1 million legal foreign workers will lay off foreign employers first if compelled to slash the work force. Over the last three months some 10,000 Malaysians and 3,000 foreigners have lost their jobs.
Similarly, there have been retrenchments in the Middle East with major employers in countries like Saudi Arabia shutting down operations and the real estate and construction business in the UAE affected by the economic downturn.