Migrant workers around the world are vulnerable to wage theft, harsh working conditions, and other forms of abuse. Laws exist to protect migrants, but recruiters are willing to do anything to earn money at the expense of migrants. To avoid debt bondage, human trafficking, and other abuses, it’s important to know your rights.
Are you a migrant worker looking for a new job? Here’s how to protect yourself while working.
What is a migrant worker?
Begin by understanding who is and isn’t a migrant worker. Different countries and organizations rely on a variety of definitions when assessing migrant status. Consider the following definitions of a migrant worker to determine if you’re included in this category:
- According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a labour migrant is defined as “those who move for the purpose of employment.”
- The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines a migrant worker as “a person who migrates from one country to another (or who has migrated from one country to another) with a view to being employed other than on his own account, and includes any person regularly admitted as a migrant for employment.”
- Finally, the United Nations (UN) defines a migrant worker as “a person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a state of which he or she is not a citizen.”
If you meet any of these definitions, it’s safe to consider yourself a migrant worker. This means that you are owed certain rights and dignities which cannot be taken away from you. Even if you violate the law, there are still rights which must be upheld by the country you currently reside in. The spread of COVID-19 has exacerbated the abuse of migrant rights, which serves as a reminder that human rights must always be safeguarded if they’re to be maintained.
Know your rights
There are different forms of migrant abuse that materialize across the world. In the Mediterranean region, many migrants are subject to harrowing journeys that jeopardize their very lives. They may be forced to pay outrageous fees to travel from one country to the next, and are often exploited by the smugglers who promise to transport them. Elsewhere, worker abuse can materialize in the workplace itself or even in a home environment.
Many migrant workers are having their wages stolen by unscrupulous employers. Others are threatened with the prospect of deportation by employers who illegally control their passports, visas, and other vital legal documents. You have rights against these forms of abuse, as well as others that might occur.
The ILO strictly prohibits charging money to migrant workers for access to employment. For both current workers and those actively seeking jobs, the ILO stipulates that “workers should not be required to pay for access to employment.” The ILO broadly defines the costs that may be related to employment and therefore are prohibited: medical and insurance costs, costs for skills and qualification tests, travel, and administrative provisions (e.g. visas) are not allowed.
Furthermore, all migrant workers are owed the right to “decent work” as described by the ILO. This generally refers to fair wages, protection from exploitation or abuse at the hands of employers or customers, and decent, dignified working conditions. According to the UN, migrant workers cannot be discriminated against on the basis of sex, race, color, language, religion, political affiliations, national origin, ethnicity, age, or marital status.
You have the right to keep possession of your passport, travel papers, and other legal documents that are used to confirm your identity. Should you find yourself abused or exploited, you have a right to seek redress even if you don’t have papers to live and work in a country legally.
How to get help
Have your rights been violated? You’re not alone – there are organizations you can contact for help. Trade unions, non-governmental organizations, and consulates frequently provide support to migrant workers who are suffering from abuse. In the United States, civil rights complaints can easily be filed online. For those working in member states of the United Nations, there are many UN human rights monitoring bodies that you can contact if an employer, recruiter, smuggler, or anyone else attempts to violate your rights.
Those who fear human trafficking can reach out to the Blue Campaign, part of the United States Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to crack down on modern human slavery. Foreign nationals residing in an unfamiliar country can also reach out to their consulates in person or online. Finally, calling local law enforcement officials for assistance in emergency situations, particularly when your physical well-being is threatened, is encouraged.
You’re not alone – there are millions of migrant workers and eager allies ready to stand with you. Protecting human rights requires constant vigilance – know your rights, and be ready to claim them!