Making migration work in Asia

06 November 2019

There are more than 70 million migrant workers in Asia. Their contribution to economic and social development is substantial, with the World Bank projecting $US288 billion worth of remittance to flow to East Asia, South Asia and the Pacific in 2019. This growing population has the potential to lift their families and communities out of entrenched cycles of poverty by boosting income and building skills to benefit them in the long-term. However, migration often increases a person’s vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation.

According to Making Migration Work: Understanding forced labour amongst migrant domestic workers in Asia, a report by Seefar and funded by the Macquarie Group Foundation, evidence of forced labour was found at all stages of the migration journey experienced by the 3,000+ Indonesian and Filipino women surveyed. Some 77% of the women interviewed reported indicators of forced labour, including confiscation of identity or travel documents, exclusion from community and social life, and recruitment linked to debt.

This came as a result of factors, from pre-departure planning, unethical recruitment practices, hardship and abuse in country, inconsistent legislation, and a lack of access to support. It’s also due to language barriers and the challenges of social integration.

The report supports the common anecdote that many migrants return home after years of labour and separation from their families, only to find themselves in a worse situation than when they left. It found that although there are lasting economic gains from labour migration, such gains are concentrated among a few people.

The goal of the study was to understand the perspectives of women subjected to forced labour and inform a roadmap for interventions to reduce a migrant domestic workers' vulnerability to forced labour.

Seefar surveyed women who planned to, were currently working, or had previously been employed as a migrant domestic worker in either Singapore or Hong Kong. They also analysed the legal frameworks in both the countries of origin and destination to understand how that impacted the lived experiences of these women.

Amongst other factors, the report raised debt as a result of unethical recruitment practices as a critical issue. For example, over half of all the women Seefar surveyed said they experienced recruitment linked to debt and on average had to spend between five to seven months paying back the money they owed.

"Reducing exploitation during the recruitment stage, such as women getting into debt before they even start working, is a really high impact way to decrease women's overall vulnerability to forced labour. One practical way to do this is by holding recruitment agencies accountable and by investing in, and supporting, ethical recruitment practices,” says Alison Coleman, Director for Migration and Forced Labour at Seefar.

Since 2014, the Macquarie Group Foundation has taken action to respond to modern slavery and helped fund critical research and interventions into the area. Following an initial report, also conducted by Seefar*, in 2016, the Foundation has supported a range of initiatives to drive educational and legislative change through its regional strategic grant making program.

These initiatives are aimed at driving ethical recruitment, strengthening knowledge for workers prior to departure, increasing domestic workers’ financial literacy, broadening employer awareness of the issue and reintegration programs for returned domestic workers.

Seefar’s 2019 report highlights the opportunities for tailored regional interventions, such as making recruitment ethical, helping workers access information to help them prepare for employment, further legislation change, and implementing market-friendly protections in destination countries. Together, such interventions will work to address the underlying causes of exploitation.

“The report provides an overall framework for governments, international donors and non-governmental organisations to work effectively together to address migrant domestic workers’ needs and ambitions, to ensure they benefit more from their migration experience,” says Alison.

Susan Clear, Regional Director of the Macquarie Group Foundation in Asia, shares the importance of reports like this to help us better understand the migration story.

“Robust and relevant data is a critical element to affect social change. We’re proud to be facilitating access to such data through reports like this one, as well as associated initiatives, all in support of better migration outcomes,” she says.

“Migration has a huge potential to truly transform lives and communities, so it’s great that the report also includes a number of practical recommendations that can be adopted to ensure the migration journey is a positive one for those involved.”

Interested in collaborating to make migration work?

The data collected in the report is available for use by other organisations seeking to take action on the issues surrounding forced labour. At the Macquarie Group Foundation, we welcome any opportunity to collaborate and amplify the impact of these findings. Contact to find out more.

*Seefar was previously known as Farsight. They changed their name in 2017.