Protecting the Dignity of Documented Guest Workers

Image: Dylan Otto Krider. There was a sea change in the State Department’s anti-human trafficking office when I was its director and chief envoy from 2007 to 2009. The changes lie in the perceived nature of human trafficking and in priorities for policy responses.

The first shift was from primarily focusing on sex trafficking to an equal emphasis on exploitation for purposes of labor. The civil society coalition ranging from feminists of the left to Christian humanitarians on the right who put human trafficking on the political map in the late 1990s had the image in mind of girls and women trafficked for commercial sex—notably flowing out of former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries after the Cold War. But it became clear that as many and more victims were being veritably enslaved for labor. Indeed, by 2007 to 2009, trafficking victims were flowing into Russia from former Warsaw Pact states for labor exploitation, rather than females flowing out for sexual exploitation. And this is not to mention the estimated two-thirds of global trafficking victims—according to scholar Kevin Bales—in bonded labor in South Asia.

Yet the second shift was born of the realization was that human trafficking victims who cross borders are not only undocumented migrants but in many cases are “legal,” documented guest workers. The trafficking of guest workers was and is perhaps most acute in the Gulf states, to which migrant workers from places like South and Southeast Asia flock. This problem was so pronounced that even contractors engaged in the construction of the enormous U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad were implicated. My questioning the hypocrisy of the United States grading other nations on their trafficking record but not giving the fullest accounting of the situation in Iraq did not win popularity points in the bureaucracy.

The trafficking of regular migrants with papers occurs in three nodes, as it were. First, unregulated labor recruiters or “brokers” require migrant workers to pay a fee to place them in jobs abroad—sometimes a fee equaling one or two years of salary. This debt traps the worker in the situation. It becomes debt bondage, akin to that of Dalits in a rice mill or brick kiln in India. Those “brokers” also lie about the nature of the work the migrants will perform—what it is, how dirty and dangerous it is, how many hours a day it is, and even where it is (including ending up working in Iraq when expecting to go elsewhere).

Second, labor agencies in the destination country for the migrant shift the migrants into different work than promised. They turn the initial recruiters’ promises into lies.

Third, workers are exploited at the actual place of employment, in the production of a good or service in the supply chain of global businesses (or government procurement). In particular, the business operations often hold the passport and the legal papers of the worker, ostensibly to keep them secure. But in reality, held papers prevent workers from fleeing a brutal worksite, for fear of being detained for lacking papers and repatriated without an ability to pay off the placement fee. As a Board Member of the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking, I have witnessed a major business in our dialogues, deeply committed to fighting human trafficking, find to its horror that factories in its supply chains regularly held passports of workers.

So what solutions are available? The first modest step is dialogue between “sending” and “recipient” states of labor migration. Both parties tend to point to each other as the one responsible for the safety of workers. Dialogue represented the early baby steps in seeking solutions from 2007 to 2009, facilitated for instance by the International Organization for Migration.

Second, vigorous action is needed by “sending” nations’ diplomats. As a sending state, the Philippines is a paragon of “owning” support for its citizens in recipient nations, conducting blunt diplomacy and running shelters for runaway abused workers at their embassies, even at the risk of compromising huge remittances sent home to family members by Filipinos and Filipinas abroad.

Third, a standard form of contract must be established for migrant workers so that those unfamiliar with their destination country and the language spoken there can have some transparent expectations.

Fourth, labor recruiters need to be vetted and regulated. The business community cringes at mention of increased regulation, but no actor is more vulnerable than multinational companies to reputational harm springing from labor sourcing based on unregulated fraud and debt bondage.

Fifth, the company receiving the benefit of the labor, not the laborer, needs to pay any placement fees to brokers. Again, this may seem like a burden to business, but it is in enlightened self-interest. Having no exploitation surprises is worth the investment.

Finally, factories and worksites of businesses and subcontractors must never ever hold the passports and work papers of migrant workers. It is workers’ unassailable right to retain their own documentation.

There are resources for businesses to implement such steps. Headquartered in Amherst, Massachusetts, state-of-the-art global nonprofit Verite offers business its expertise in reliable and humane labor sourcing in the form of a toolkit embodying best practices.

So, human trafficking wreaks havoc in addition to commoditized sex; the International Labor Organization found in 2012 that third-quarters of it is primarily for labor. In the face of such trafficking that not only ensnares “irregular,” undocumented migrants but also “legal” guest workers, businesses can no longer say they don’t know about the problem or about available solutions.