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10 Jul 2020

NGOs call for justice mechanism & protections for Asian workers repatriated without owed wages during Covid-19 crisis

Photo by Jason Goh/Pixabay

On 1 June 2020, a coalition of NGOs and unions launched an urgent appeal letter calling for an urgent justice mechanism for workers who have been impacted and repatriated as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The economic fallout from the pandemic includes an estimated 195 million lost jobs, including an estimated 5 million in the Middle East, many of these held by migrant workers. There are serious concerns that without proper controls or procedures, repatriated workers may not receive with due wages, compensation and benefits, and that millions may be burdened with debt bondage as they struggle to pay of growing recruitment fees.

In light of these risks, the Justice for Wage Theft campaign highlights the challenges posed by mass repatriation, including that employers may take advantage of the situation to terminate and return workers who have not been paid due compensation, wages and benefits. They call for states to ensure that companies and employers are fulfilling their human rights obligations, warning that without proper oversight states may become "complicit" in a situation where workers do not earn their wages, have workplace grievances heard, nor receive justice.

The campaign was launched by Migrant Forum in Asia, Lawyers Beyond Borders Network, Cross Regional Centre for Migrants and Refugees, South Asia Trade union Council, and Solidarity Center, and endorsed by a group of international and national unions and labour rights groups, including the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility urges companies to implement human rights due diligence in their supply chains during and following the COVID-19 crisis. We call on companies and investors to support MFA’s Justice for Wage Theft campaign.
William Gois on an Urgent Justice Mechanism for Migrant Workers

In this interview, William Gois, Project Coordinator at Migrant Forum in Asia, speaks with Neill Wilkins, Head of the Migrant Workers Program at IHRB. Migrant Forum in Asia represents over 200 organisations across Asia who collaborate to address the challenges migrant workers face. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing labour issues for migrant workers, including mass terminations and unpaid or delayed wages (potentially totalling millions of dollars). The proposed transitional justice mechanism calls on governments, UN agencies and businesses to collaborate and address the ongoing crisis.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Millions will suffer if this crime goes unnoticed. We cannot see this as collateral damage brought by the pandemic... The pandemic must not stifle our will, our spirit and commitment for justice. If we are to ‘Build Back Better’, we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the issue of wage theft that has been persistent across migration corridors for years, and will be unprecedented in the case of repatriated migrant workers in the COVID 19 pandemic.
William Gois, Regional Coordinator of Migrant Forum in Asia

On 10th July the coalition reiterated their call, outlining three proposed areas for reform including: establishing an International Claims Commission, establishing a Compensation Fund for compensation in wage theft cases; and, requesting states "rebuild migrant-centered justice systems at the national level" to ensure workers can access justice and hold employers to account.

On 12th August the campaign released an appeal (see below in full) to businesses outlining the responsibilities of businesses during the pandemic, and 14 steps for employers to take to ensure they are protect migrant workers from wage theft.

On 16th September the campaign released an appeal (see below in full) to states. While they acknowledge the actions of some states in enabling migrant workers' access to justice, they call on states to recognise the urgency of the wage theft crisis and that they must engage with employers to hold employers accountable for wage theft, and ensure their justice systems are reformed to resolve the issue.

On 17th November Appeal 5 was released, offering a number of concrete and tangible steps to both countries of origin and countries of destination to address the wage theft issue as repatriations continue at an unprecedented scale, months after the COVID-19 pandemic began.

To mark UN International Migrants Day 2020 (December 18th), the NHRIs of the Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Philippines issued a joint statement committing to take action to support the rights of workers to remedy for wage theft and other abuses.

In March 2021, Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) formally endorsed MFA's Call, noting that "numerous retailers and manufacturers in all sectors have avoided liability for systemic abuse in the past which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic". ICCR urged companies and investors to support the Justice for Wage Theft campaign.

You can sign the Justice for Wage Theft petition to demand governments act to respond to the needs of migrant workers and establish justice mechanisms to address the crisis of mass terminations and wage theft caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yes to Justice campaign: Migrant Forum in Asia
Justice For Wage Theft The Role of NHRIs in the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers