Given labour migration is a global occurrence, there is migrant labour in every industry in almost every country in the world — and not all migrants work and live under problematic conditions. This issue focuses on three industries that are commonly identified with dangerous and discriminatory practices against migrant labour: construction, agriculture, and fashion and apparel. To identify potential risks for migrant workers in other industries, companies can access the CSR Risk Check.
Migrant labour is commonly found in the construction industry, in developed and developing countries. Construction — like agriculture — can be sensitive to economic, social, political and seasonal changes, which can mean highly uncertain working conditions for migrant workers. In some countries — such as the United Arab Emirates — up to 30% of the migrant labour pool is engaged in construction. Widespread abuses faced by migrant workers in the construction industry include fraudulent or exploitative practices, such as the withholding of identity documents, excessive working hours, arbitrary deductions or late payment of wages, and being made to work in unsafe working conditions, including not being provided with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
Construction-specific risk factors include the following:
- Working conditions in construction are notoriously demanding and dangerous, with high levels of industrial accidents. Migrant workers are more vulnerable to being coerced into working in unsafe conditions that disregard occupational safety and health, especially where there are language barriers or a lack of knowledge of labour rights.
- Migrant workers are often isolated and living in an on-site or employer-provided accommodation, which gives employers control over workers. This often gives rise to risks of sub-standard accommodation or excessive wage deductions for accommodation or transport.
- Construction skills are often transferable between projects and across countries, which means that workers may not be given specific training on their tasks or the safety and health procedures of a project. This can leave migrant workers vulnerable to abuse of rights and dangerous working conditions.
- The complexity of construction projects exacerbates a broad range of labour-related risks for migrant workers. Construction projects may involve hundreds of subcontractors. In many instances, contractors are not obliged to pay subcontractors until they have received payment from the client.
- The sensitivity of construction projects to finance and economic changes can lead to periods of intense work. Migrant workers can be vulnerable to excessive working hours as they may want to earn as much as possible in short periods of time, which can result in unhealthy working time.
FIFA — Migrant workers killed while constructing FIFA World Cup Stadium (Qatar)
On 2 December 2010, Qatar was announced as the location for the FIFA World Cup 2022. This was met with significant concerns from the human rights community, as well as many political leaders, over how the facilities and infrastructure for the World Cup would be constructed, alongside broader concerns over the human rights conditions in the country.
It has been reported that since construction began, and despite the ongoing work of some leading human rights institutions, there have been over 6,500 deaths of migrant workers related to construction. The workers were from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and many more unreported deaths are expected to have occurred, particularly from countries such as the Philippines and Kenya, which send large numbers of workers to Qatar each year. Migrant workers are found to have paid expensive recruitment fees, been indebted into ‘bonded labour’, and are unable to quit as only the employer can obtain the requisite ‘exit permit’ allowing the worker to leave.
The working and human rights conditions in Qatar in industries such as construction are poor and accidents and deaths are common, particularly among migrant workers, who have next to no rights and operate under difficult migrant labour restrictions. FIFA representatives have stated that they are “fully committed to protecting the rights of workers on site”, but subcontracting and ‘off-site’ conditions and treatment of workers — such as unsafe accommodation and no access to water in extreme summer heat — creates risks for migrant workers. Companies associated with FIFA and the 2022 World Cup, including Adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa, face scrutiny over their support for the Qatari World Cup and FIFA while human rights abuses are so prevalent.
- ILO, Migrant Work & Employment in the Construction Sector: This resource looks at some of the barriers migrant workers can face in accessing fair, safe and decent work in the construction sector. It includes recommendations for employers on how to ensure better working conditions for migrant workers.
- Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, A Human Rights Primer for Business: Understanding Risks to Construction Workers in the Middle East: This resource provides specific regional advice for construction companies operating in the Middle East and key human rights risks to look out for, with a focus on the labour rights issues faced by migrant workers.
- BSR, Migrant Workers and the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar: Actions for Business: This report gives business best practices and guidelines on how to protect migrant workers’ rights in construction, applicable globally.
- Stronger Together, Construction: A range of advice, campaigns and resources to tackle modern slavery and migrant worker issues in the construction sector.
Fashion and Apparel
The fashion and apparel industry has many characteristics that make the exploitation of migrant workers more prevalent. Reports have highlighted that migrant workers were the worst affected in 2020 when international fashion brands cancelled orders from textile and apparel factories due to COVID-19 — particularly in Turkey and South-East Asia — resulting in unpaid wages and lost jobs for hundreds of thousands of workers.
Fashion and apparel specific risk factors include the following:
- The industry uses a lot of outsourcing and home working, which makes it hard to trace where a product was made and by whom. This presents big risks for migrant workers who may be forced to work and live in dangerous circumstances, as labour inspectors are highly unlikely to ‘find’ them or witness these circumstances to foster change.
- As with agriculture and construction, fashion and apparel manufacturing is vulnerable to economic changes, as seen in 2020 due to the economic downturn from COVID-19. This can leave garment workers without wages or work for long periods of time, which is particularly harmful to migrant workers who may not have secure homes, the ability to get other jobs or who may lose their visas or right to remain if they are not able to secure a new job.
- Migrant workers in the fashion and apparel sector are vulnerable to wage and working time violations and occupational safety and health risks. This is due to challenges in the enforcement and application of labour laws, especially in the lower tiers of supply chains and subcontracting networks; a lack of specific legislation criminalizing the use of forced labour; weak monitoring of recruitment agencies and labour brokers; and increased international pressure to reduce production costs. Other factors include language barriers and cultural discrimination.
- ILO, Guide for Employers on Preventing Forced Labour in the Textile and Garment Supply Chains in Viet Nam: This guide serves as a reference point for companies on social and legal compliance issues (including migrant labour issues) in Vietnamese textile and garment enterprises.
- OECD, Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment & Footwear Sector: This guidance aims to help fashion and apparel businesses implement the due diligence recommendations contained in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises to avoid and address the potential negative impacts of their activities and supply chains on a range of human rights, including migrant labour abuse.
- Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), An Investor Briefing on the Apparel Industry: Moving the Needle on Labour Practices: This resource guides institutional investors on how to identify negative human rights impacts in the apparel industry, including recruitment fees, discrimination and those pertaining to forced labour, with some focus on migrant workers.
- Institute for Human Rights and Business, Migration with Dignity: A Guide to Implementing the Dhaka Principles: A practical guide to implementing the Dhaka Principles of fair and equal labour for migrants. The Dhaka Principles provide a roadmap that traces the migrant worker from recruitment, through employment, to the end of contract and provides key principles that employers and migrant recruiters should respect at each stage in the process to ensure migration with dignity.
- Clean Clothes Campaign, ‘Made in Japan’ and the Cost to Migrant Workers: Report on migrant garment workers in Japan’s state-supported Technical Internship Training Programme (TITP) are subjected to widespread labour violations including poverty pay, debt bondage, enforced overtime, and inadequate and crowded living and working conditions.
- Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Without Liberty: Female Migrant Workers in Bangalore’s Garment Industry: This report finds that female migrants employed in India’s garment factories that supply to big international brands are often recruited with false promises about wages and benefits and subject to conditions of modern slavery.
- Asia Wage Floor, The Emperor Has No Clothes: Garment Supply Chains in the Time of Pandemic: A report on Asian garment workers, including migrant workers, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Agriculture and Fishing
Agriculture is estimated by the ILO to employ around 1.3 billion people (2018) globally, around half of the world’s workforce, many of whom are migrant workers. The seasonal nature of agricultural work means that most agricultural workers are migrant workers who are able to relocate following seasonal patterns of harvesting, fish migration or livestock rearing.
Agriculture and fishing specific risk factors include the following:
- Migrant workers are particularly at risk of abuse in the agricultural industry as many live and work in a subsistence fashion, without any permanent accommodation or other form of income. This can result in employers taking advantage of workers and creating abusive conditions, such as excessive working hours, unsafe working environment, lack of PPE and withholding of wages.
- Reports show that temporary migrant worker accommodation in the agricultural sector has been a ‘hot spot’ for COVID-19 transmission during the global pandemic.
- Long supply chains and subcontracting make it difficult for businesses to ensure labour rights are respected for all workers, including migrant workers. Remote locations also mean labour inspections are less likely to occur, and workers are more likely to be isolated from their environment and therefore unable to reach out for assistance or to seek remedy.
- Agricultural work is one of the most dangerous in the world according to the ILO. Migrant workers — particularly those who are undocumented or in an irregular situation — often do not have access to health care, so injuries or illnesses that result from agricultural work (such as heatstroke, repetitive strain injuries or exposure to chemicals) can go untreated, potentially leading to significant illness or injury.
- Fishing and whaling are also dangerous occupations as they are mostly undertaken offshore where workers are vulnerable to dangerous tides, weather and storms. Fishing fleets can also stay at sea for months and even years, leaving workers extremely isolated, particularly if they have no access to the ship’s communication system. Fishing is heavily reliant on migrant labour and hard to monitor, which means that abusive labour practices are rife and workers are at high risk of being trapped on vessels or abused.
- ILO, Migrant Workers in Commercial Agriculture: A report on the treatment of migrant workers in agriculture and guidance for improvement.
- ILO, Fishers First: Good Practices to End Labour Exploitation at Sea: This resource provides examples of good practices and innovative interventions from around the world aimed at eradicating forced labour and other forms of labour exploitation in the fishing industry, which is heavily reliant on migrant labour.
- Ethical Trading Initiative, Addressing Worker Vulnerability in Agricultural and Food Supply Chains (Vulnerable Workers Toolkit): This toolkit provides companies in the agricultural and food supply chain with specific guidance on tackling worker vulnerability, including migrant workers.
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Regulating Labour and Safety Standards in the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Sectors: This resource provides information on international labour standards that apply in agriculture and impact migrant workers, as well as on the integration of international standards into national legislation.