Created in partnership with the Helpdesk on Business & Human Rights

Migrant Workers

International migrant workers comprise almost 5% of the global workforce but remain especially vulnerable to low wages, unsafe working conditions, discrimination and trafficking.

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Contextual Risk Factors

The prevention of migrant worker abuse requires an understanding of its underlying causes and the consideration of a wide range of issues.

Key risk factors include:

  • High levels of migration, particularly of low-skilled and low-paid labour, exacerbates the likelihood of labour rights violations as employers know many migrant workers will be vulnerable or desperate for work. Migrants make up a much larger proportion of those subject to forced labour in specific sectors and locations. Migrants who have their legal employment status tied to their employer under sponsorship visa programmes may be unwilling to report labour rights violations or may be unable to leave or return home without the explicit permission of the sponsor.
  • The use of recruitment agencies and other labour intermediaries raises the risk of migrant workers facing labour rights abuses. Fraudulent recruitment practices may involve agencies, but also other types of formal and informal intermediaries, who exploit migrant workers’ vulnerability and impose excessive fees as part of the recruitment process. Such opaque practices often leave migrant workers in substantial debt leading to conditions amounting to forced labour or debt bondage. Furthermore, excessive or arbitrary wage deductions throughout the period of employment can create further debt for migrant workers.
  • Inadequate legal and policy framework which fails to promote equality of treatment between migrant workers and nationals. The poor protections afforded to migrant workers offer them a low standard of legal protections against forced labour and other labour rights abuses. Labour legislation and workplace cultures in some countries, particularly in Gulf states that employ the kafala (sponsorship) system, explicitly provide for preferential treatment and higher payment for local workers than for migrant workers. A lack of strong laws against labour abuse or inadequate criminal sanctions can result in a lack of deterrence.
  • Poor enforcement of domestic labour laws due to inadequate training, an under-resourced labour inspectorate or high levels of corruption.
  • High levels of poverty and unemployment, low levels of social protection, and inequalities within a country or region, particularly where the informal economy constitutes a high percentage of the overall workforce. Where there is a lack of state support or formal contracts enshrining workplace rights, workers face greater vulnerability to poor working conditions. This can also cause racism, xenophobia and other discrimination against migrant workers as they may be seen as unwelcome or increasing competition for resources and jobs.
  • Low wages and long working hours can force migrant workers to undertake dangerous or excessive work. Excessive working hours and wages that do not meet minimum wage laws may result in working poverty (see Living Wage and Working Time issues). Particularly where migrant workers are sending money to their home countries via remittances, they may undertake extreme working hours or overtime to make enough money.