Building a better future for migrant workers in Asia

Image credit: Voice of the Free

On International Migrants Day, it’s important to shine a light on the role migrant workers play in filling critical labour shortages and generating economic growth in Asia. Sadly, many are vulnerable to exploitation and forced labour.

Modern slavery continues to be a global issue, Approximately 24.9 million people are trapped in forced labour1 and the COVID-19 pandemic has left them more vulnerable than ever. Border restrictions stopped migration, while those already employed in foreign countries were the first to lose their jobs.2 In the second quarter of 2020, an estimated 15.2 per cent  of working hours – 265 million full-time jobs – were cut.3 Millions had to return home, while others found themselves stranded and unemployed.

Yet, a growing number of migrant workers are continuing to choose to leave their home country due to a lack employment opportunities there. In 2019, 90.3 million migrants in Asia sought new sources of work beyond their home nation.4 But this search for a better life and a way to support family leaves many vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Women like Savitha face a harsh reality as a migrant. As a young child, she was forced to drop out of upper primary school due to her low family income, and without her consent, was married at the age of 14. Savitha’s husband, a distant relative, was abusive, so she looked for ways to escape. A woman approached Savitha and offered her well-paid work in Mumbai, a dream come true for her. What she did not realise was that she was being taken advantage of and was lured into the human trafficking and adult entertainment industry. Savitha’s story is just one example of the difficult conditions migrant workers face throughout Asia.


Working towards better outcomes for migrants in Asia

Since 2014, the Macquarie Group Foundation (the Foundation) has been supporting organisations across Asia to enable better migration outcomes. It has commissioned research and published reports to shine a light on the state of domestic workers and the issues they face. It has funded education and employment interventions that can help prevent vulnerability to modern slavery. Connecting migrant workers to skills and training, facilitating fair employment, and working with governments across the region has made a measurable improvement to the lives and overall wellbeing of migrant workers in the region5.

Macquarie staff also play a significant role in the success of these programs, with our people driving many initiatives of the Foundation. They take an active role in helping organisations from a strategic and operational perspective, while also dedicating time to volunteer and assist beneficiaries with skills and job-readiness training. 

Stories like Savitha’s, referred to above. highlight the direct impact of such collaborative, purpose-driven work. Oasis India, a Foundation grant partner, is an organisation in India working to prevent human trafficking and violence against women and children, has changed Savitha’s life. She was encouraged to access counselling and life skills services offered by Oasis India and eventually moved into their rehabilitation facility. There she took up hair and beauty care training which she excelled at, progressing to the advanced training program. The program has given her the skills to earn her own income and provide for her two daughters and give back to other women at the facility, offering hope, courage and support.

Many migrant workers are also trapped in vulnerable situations due to a fragmented recruitment process. Recruiters charge significant fees to workers, yet they offer limited guidance around migration and working overseas, often leaving migrants in debt and trapped in jobs that exploit their situation.

Fair Employment Foundation (FEF) aims to streamline this process by building market solutions including fair and ethical recruitment agencies across Asia. The Foundation’s funding supports this mission by helping FEF scale its impact across the continent.

A lack of financial literacy is another growing challenge for migrant workers. While they may earn more than in their home countries, they are not necessarily equipped to manage their finances, including debts to recruitment agents, family obligations, extortionate interest rates and scams.

In Hong Kong, Enrich gives migrant domestic workers the power to achieve financial goals and transform their lives through financial tools, workshops and mentorship. The Foundation works with Enrich to support the growth of its core education programs and reach a wider domestic worker community.

The Philippines is one of the world’s leading sources of migrant workers, with many feeling they have no choice but to seek work far from home, unprepared and without knowing what to expect. Currently there are an estimated 784,000 Filipinos living in modern slavery.6

Voice of the Free (VF) is working to change this by empowering vulnerable young women in the Philippines. For the past three decades, it has been working to rescue at-risk children, provide care for victims and offer education to young girls and women – so they don’t fall prey to human trafficking and exploitation. The Foundation collaborates with VF to support its community education and employment programs for returned and potential migrant workers.

The Foundation is continuing to look for new opportunities to partner with our people and businesses to help build a better future for migrant workers in Asia.


  1. Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage, Geneva, September 2017
  2. Suswopna Rimal, ‘Pandemic Dramatically Alters Path of Migrant Workers’, The Asia Foundation, 12 May 2021,
  3. Labour Migration in Asia, Impacts of the COVID-19 Crisis and the Post-Pandemic Future, 2021
  4. ADB, Asian Economic Integration Report, 2021
  5. Making Migration Work Understanding forced labour amongst migrant domestic workers in Asia, October 2019
  6. 2018 Global Slavery Index estimates 784,00 Filipinos are living in modern slavery, with 65% of persons trafficked being women, while children make up 21%.