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Migrant workers in global supply chains

The ILO estimates there are over 169 million international migrant workers globally. In some regions and particular sectors, migrants make up the majority or a significant minority of the workforce. In each of the Gulf states, for example, migrants make up between 60 and 95% of the working population. Northern, Southern and Western Europe, and North America are also key receiving regions for migrant workers. Globally, in sectors such as construction, agriculture, transport and health care, migrants make a vital contribution. However, while labour migration brings economic, social, and cultural benefits to migrants, and to their countries of origin and destination, migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Such labour violations begin during recruitment, when many workers are charged extortionate or illegal recruitment fees, while employers fail to take responsibility for covering the cost of recruitment (Employer Pays Principle), to detect and reimburse payments. This can lead to deleterious human rights impacts, including debt bondage for individuals, and negatively impact on countries where remittances form a large contribution to GDP, such as Nepal. Recruitment agencies may also promise good working conditions that do not materialise upon arrival. Low-income migrants are particularly over-represented in sectors with high degrees of informality that lack labour rights protection. Further, migrant workers may have limited knowledge of their labour rights in or the language of the host nation, key barriers to support and remedy.

Migrants’ immigration status also catalyses precarity. For example, the temporary nature of migrants’ work and residency reduce migrants’ ability to bargain collectively for improved conditions. In some jurisdictions, workers do not have access to voting or membership rights to belong to unions. Sponsorship policies tying migrants’ right to remain to their employment contract lead to workers’ remaining silent on abuse. Undocumented workers particularly fear reprisals due to the threat of deportation. Employers may further control workers by withholding their passports, an ILO indicator of forced labour.

These vulnerabilities increase migrants risk of experiencing a range of labour rights violations, such as wage theft, discrimination, and hazardous occupational health and safety. Such exploitation contrasts acutely with the huge profits earned by industries across the globe that are dependent upon migrant workers.

International Migrants Day: Global analysis 2023

Between December 1 2022 and November 30 2023, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre recorded 613 human rights abuse allegations against migrant workers toiling in supply chains across the globe. Explore the data through this interactive webpage to see the types of threats migrant workers face, which industries benefit from abuse and which migration corridors are most dangerous for the workers who use them.

Converging crises and vulnerability

Migrant workers are vulnerable to corporate abuse due to several intersecting factors, explored below. During 2022 and 2023, this vulnerability was catalysed amid converging geopolitical, economic and environmental crises. Dehumanising immigration regimes across the world also continue to press migrants into positions of precarity.

Qatar migrant worker

Migrant worker vulnerability

Intersecting factors catalyse migrants' vulnerability.

Qatar migrant worker

Migrant worker vulnerability

Intersecting factors catalyse migrants' vulnerability.

Migrant workers are often socially or physically isolated, and struggle to access support following instances of abuse. They often work in remote locations and live in accommodation separate from the domestic population. The fishing industry proves an extreme example of this, with migrant fishers remaining on vessels sometimes for years without docking, though workers in industries such as construction and agriculture are also housed near or on worksites away from locals.

It suits employers that migrant workers often lack knowledge of their rights, face language barriers, and lack protective social networks in destination countries: these factors lead to fewer opportunities for workers to register complaints. In some destinations, requirements to provide contracts in workers’ languages are non-existent or not enforced; employers dismiss workers without informing them of their rights, or only communicate working terms and conditions to English-speaking employees. A report from the ILO in June 2023 found migrant workers were unable to assert their rights due to legal and practical obstacles to their ability to unionise. In some contexts, where migrants can hold union membership, they may still be unable to vote or stand for leadership.

Further, employer retaliation (whether real or potential) makes it difficult for migrants to speak up. This includes employers or agencies physically attacking workers, punitive measures such as failing to deploy workers on shift-pay jobs, and, at worst, state-facilitated detention and deportation. Employer retaliation is a particular issue for undocumented workers, whose irregular status can be used by employers to coerce them to accept poor working conditions for fear of being deported otherwise. Undocumented workers also fear complaining to authorities as labour inspectors increasingly also conduct immigration enforcement activities, resulting in abuse being under-reported.

Migrants may enter the country legally but become undocumented during their stay, such as by leaving an employer to whom their visa is tied to after experiencing abuse. Employers also press workers into undocumented status by promising legal employment that does not materialise or refusing to renew visas. Accountability for companies benefitting from undocumented labour is limited, owing to the knee-jerk reaction of business in some cases to dismiss undocumented workers or terminate contracts with suppliers who employ them, rather than take steps to regularise them and treat them fairly.

Migrant vulnerability is also shaped by demographic factors such as gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status, which intersect to form specific disadvantages. Migrant women, for example, are more vulnerable to certain risks, such as sexual harassment in the workplace or discrimination associated with conventional views of female caregiving. Women migrants are also more likely to work in low-wage and informal industries, such as care work, domestic work or garment manufacturing, where labour rights abuse proliferates. Women from the Global South experience heightened abuse, including women’s poor living conditions or harsh working conditions being determined by racist stereotypes.

Kripal Mandal migrant worker Qatar passport

Immigration policies

Immigration policies increase the risk of corporate abuse.

Kripal Mandal migrant worker Qatar passport

Immigration policies

Immigration policies increase the risk of corporate abuse.

Immigration policies across jurisdictions, particularly the issuance of closed work-permits, allow corporate abuse of migrant labour to proliferate in many sectors. For example, this is evident in agriculture in the USA, UK and Canada, hospitality and agriculture in Australia, in Japan’s Technical Trainee Programme and in the Kafala system of sponsorship in the Gulf.

Temporary labour programmes – time-limited schemes where migrants are required to return to their country of origin after contracts end – are particularly problematic. The term ‘temporary’ is misleading: migrants often return to the same scheme annually for decades (circular migration), yet are permanently excluded from paths to residency or citizenship. In particular, seasonal worker schemes employing workers for extremely short periods of time, such as during harvest or as supplementary staff for seasonal events, may not even provide enough work for migrants to pay off debts taken to obtain jobs in the first place.

Such programmes open borders to ‘workers, not people’ by denying migrants many human rights. The use of employer or sponsor-tied visas is a case in point. Workers’ ability to change jobs, either following abuse or simply to gain a better opportunity, is partially or entirely dependent on their employer’s approval as well as legal conditions. This reduces the likelihood of migrants raising complaints, for fear of dismissal, the loss of regular status, imprisonment and deportation, with the complicity of retaliatory employers. These highly problematic regimes allow employers to file criminal complaints against workers ostensibly for “absconding”, but in reality it is often done in retaliation for speaking up about abuse or asking for rights.

Such issues are catalysed by the increasing dehumanisation of migrants by politicians and in media coverage, particularly in the Global North. Framing migrants as ‘illegal’ or referring to ‘floods’ of migration continues. Migrants are also often falsely characterised as temporary contributors to the national economy, despite many working in receiving countries for decades, often without pathways to citizenship. Combined with deleterious immigration policies, ‘hostile’ environments make for a toxic mix, where corporate abuse becomes seemingly acceptable.

Wherever states fail to protect human rights, companies have a heightened responsibility to respect them. If governments themselves are failing to investigate, provide remedy, or rely on schemes that are themselves allegedly exploitative, companies must close the gap.

climate change

Converging crises

Converging crises are changing migration patterns and risks

climate change

Converging crises

Converging crises are changing migration patterns and risks

Converging crisis throughout 2022 and 2023 exacerbated migrant vulnerability and shaped migration patterns across the world. Disasters catalysed by the climate emergency, such as droughts and floods, forced people to leave home in search of work amid lost livelihoods. People increasingly turn to both internal and international migration as a means to adapt. Yet upon arrival in destination regions, many laboured outdoors in deadly heat without protection, amid record breaking temperatures throughout the year.

Rising conflict and border tensions also saw huge numbers of people displaced, including due to war in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, intense fighting in Sudan, violence by military group M23 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, droughts, floods and conflict in Somalia, continued violence in Myanmar, and Israel’s retaliatory mass killings of civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Traumatic journeys, a lack of legal, protective pathways, and an inability to return home left refugees particularly vulnerable to rights abuse. Increasing economic inequality between and within countries and acute poverty across the globe, catalysed by the cost-of-living crises, also drove many to search for work and opportunities elsewhere.

Businesses – and particularly those in the Global North – need these workers. Aging populations, falling birth-rates, and poor working conditions are creating severe labour shortages. 2023 has thus shed light on the urgent need for businesses to respect the human rights of these vital yet vulnerable workers.

On the new law [abolishing the No-Objection Certificate], to be honest, it’s just there on mere paper because these employers are not signing the resignation letters. Instead, they go ahead and cancel your visa and, before you know it, they forcefully repatriate you back to your country. On extreme cases they go further and report you as a runaway worker to the CID [Criminal Investigation Department].
East African hotel driver in Qatar

By the numbers (January 2022 - January 2024)

We track cases of alleged abuse of migrant workers globally, including by sector of employment, nationality and type of abuse.

1076

Alleged cases

Tracked since January 2022

28%

Agri-food supply chains accounts for the highest cases per sector

Including farming, fishing, processing & packaging, and on the shop floor.

41%

Gulf

Most commonly reported destination region

63%

Violations of employment standards

Most commonly reported abuse, incl., wage theft, unreasonable hours or performance targets, arbitrary dismissal, & forced labour, among other abuses.

Whenever we find public reports of companies abusing workers, we take up the allegation directly with companies (our Company Response Mechanism), particularly where abuse concerns workers employed in the supply chains of international brands. Recently, company outreach has included alleged abuse of migrant fishers in UK fishing supply chains, Nepali agriculture workers in Malaysia regarding wage theft and physical abuse, and recruitment fee-charging for Nepali workers destined for UAE hotels.

Since January 2022, we have tracked cases of alleged abuse of migrant workers around the world, impacting thousands of workers employed across multiple sectors and regions. Wage theft, charging of recruitment fees and a lack of access to remedy characterise the cases, which relies on public reported by news outlets and NGOs. Our data relating to migrant workers in the Gulf, dates back to January 2016. The tracker enables us to monitor rights violations even where companies are untraceable and sits alongside our Company Response Mechanism as a tool to increase corporate transparency and accountability. Please contact us for more information on our databases.

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