The research found that exploitation and rights violations occur during all phases of labour migration.
The graph below shows common problems experienced by migrant workers before and during recruitment and training, while working abroad, and upon the termination of their contract and their eventual return home.
“I live in the agency, and had to buy all my food. However, my salary still gets deducted. The agency keeps sending me around to all different employers and I keep being transferred. I am working only to pay the agency.”
31-year old migrant from Cagayan, Philippines
Rates of modern slavery amongst Indonesian and Filipina domestic workers is high in Hong Kong and especially in Singapore – both key destinations for migrant domestic workers in Asia. There are no significant differences between nationalities, but among returned migrants, prevalence rates were higher in Indonesia than in the Philippines.
The exploitation of migrant workers begins during recruitment – before they even begin working. On aggregate, 71% of respondents said they had experienced some combination of confinement, confiscation of documents or verbal, physical or sexual threats and abuse. A quarter of respondents indicated that recruiters provided them with false information regarding the nature of the work, their salary and their living conditions. This facilitates the placement of a migrant worker into a life which they have not agreed to. Whether this is done knowingly or not, it highlights the key role the recruitment industry plays in the exploitation of migrant workers. The research shows there is more exploitation in Indonesia than in the Philippines, with Indonesian workers generally incurring more recruitment debt, and feeling more frequently forced by their recruiters to migrate.
Exploitation and Abuse
Victims of modern slavery do not always suffer extreme abuse, such as physical or sexual abuse. We found few cases of extreme abuse. The findings show that emotional abuse is far more common, and that most potential victims experience a multitude of other issues that severely reduce their freedom over their working conditions, their finances, and the way they are treated by their recruiters and employers.
The aggregate result was that 63% of respondents faced exploitative practices while working abroad. The majority of respondents also experienced a multitude of issues that reduced autonomy in their workplace and impacted their finances.
Common rights violations include limited freedom of movement (49%), confiscation of identity and travel documents (32%), and false information about salary (14%).
There are significant differences between the situation of Indonesian and Filipina workers. Filipina workers generally have less debt, and feel less forced to migrate than Indonesians in the survey. However, differences according to nationality between current workers in Hong Kong and Singapore are small. This means that most problems identified in this research cannot be attributed to a specific nationality, and that the mistreatment of migrant domestic workers is a regional rather than a national issue.
Some of the major problems migrant domestic workers experience are still within the law, or appear to be within a grey area of the law. For example, many workers unknowingly accumulate debt (in the sample on average USD 1,845 in Hong Kong and USD 1,653 in Singapore) and have limited ability to influence their destination or to change employers. Restrictions on the rights of migrant domestic workers in destination countries frequently cause them to seek assistance from agents, who they pay disproportionate fees compared to their salary and the services received. As a result, many work under difficult circumstances for little or no pay. It is clear that closer monitoring of institutions is not sufficient to address issues and that structural change is required.
However, the structures that create these situations are not easy to change. Stricter legislation has not stopped recruiters and middlemen from charging exorbitant fees to prospective workers who are then in debt before they reach their destination country of employment. The agencies in destination countries continue to profit by overcharging migrant workers for their services; and employers still exploit the economic and psychological vulnerability of their employees by placing excessive demands and – in some cases – expecting workers to pay for their share of the migration cost.
Our analysis of factors associated with wage levels suggests that spending time at a recruitment facility predicts lower average salaries. Perversely, working more hours is associated with a lower monthly salary.
On the other hand, there seems to be a positive relation between more rights and the situation of migrant domestic workers: Hong Kong has a lower prevalence rate of modern slavery than Singapore and grants workers more rights, including a minimum wage and the right to unionize. Still, the 17% measured in Hong Kong tells us that more steps need to be taken to protect vulnerable workers and improve migration outcomes on all levels, including positive economic impact. See the full report for more on key findings.