Key Findings

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How prevalent is forced labour among respondents?

The majority of the total of the current and returned migrant workers interviewed in 2019 (77%) reported indicators of forced labour. They were highest among Indonesians returning from Singapore (98%) or Hong Kong (94%). 


In 2016 and 2019, most (88%) of current migrants in Singapore were likely victims. In Hong Kong, there was a big jump from 2016 (17%) to 2019 (79%), largely due to the exploitation that these migrants experienced in their home countries during recruitment – though the use of a different survey instrument may have played a part in this.


Respondents currently working in Singapore (71%) were marginally less likely to be victims than in Hong Kong (79%). However, the reverse was true among returnees: 88% who worked in Singapore were likely victims, compared to 74% who worked in Hong Kong.


What factors are driving prospective migrants’ decision-making?

Most Indonesian (76%) and Filipina (99%) prospective migrant respondents felt they did not have a choice in their decision to work abroad. This was due to economic need, family pressure, and perceived lack of opportunities at home. 


Prospective migrants made migration decisions based on immediate economic needs, not long-term economic planning. Most (75%) prospective migrants said that their household income did not cover their expenses and most (73%) planned to use their earnings abroad for household running costs (75% of Filipina respondents; 70% Indonesian).

Who did prospective migrants turn to for information about working abroad?

Family and friends at home and abroad were most influential in the decision to go. Over half of Indonesian (54%) respondents spoke to friends in their home country about migration but when it came to making the decision to go, family at home (33%) were most influential. For Filipinas, family abroad was the most common (38%) and most widely influential (27%). 


While recruiters – typically pointed to as the main source of deception and coercion – were common sources of migration information, they were not as influential as family and friends. Nearly a quarter (24%) of Indonesian prospective migrants said recruiters were a key source of information but nearly none (4%) said they were influential. For Filipinas, it was 30% sourced versus 16% influential.


How are recruitment practices in sending countries leading to forced labour?

Evidence of forced labour was found at all stages of the migration journey, but was most prevalent during the recruitment stage in sending countries.


Debt-led recruitment rose significantly between 2016 and 2019 – and is strikingly high in Indonesia. The number of Indonesian migrants (current and returned) experiencing recruitment linked to debt was 30% higher in 2019 (79%) than 2016 (51%). Further, almost all (91%) of the Indonesian sample reported going into debt at the time of recruitment compared to just 12% of Filipinas. 


Many workers agree to contracts they do not understand. Interviews showed that many workers are uncertain about the content of their contractual obligations, what is forbidden and optional, and the discretionary provisions that agencies are inserting.


Almost half of the total sample experienced coercive recruitment. Indonesians are much more likely to experience coercive recruitment than Filipinas at 61% versus 30%. The most prevalent form of control reported by respondents in Singapore was an inability to leave the recruitment facility during recruitment. 


Identity paper or travel documents are routinely confiscated. Indonesians (79%) were significantly more likely to have their personal documents confiscated during recruitment than Filipinas (29%). 


Physical and sexual violence was reported at low levels but neglect was higher. One fifth of returned Indonesians report neglect – specifically deprivation of food or medical assistance – as a form of punishment during recruitment, compared to only 3% of returned Filipinas.


Which forced labour indicators are migrants facing while abroad?

Working under duress was a key concern while abroad. This included forced overtime work (32% current migrant workers in Hong Kong; 12% in Singapore), limiting freedom of movement (18% Hong Kong, 11% Singapore), constant surveillance (33% Hong Kong, 13% Singapore). Current migrants in Singapore (31%) and migrants returning to Indonesia (27%) were most likely to report they lacked the freedom to terminate contracts in line with legal provision.



Abuse in employers’ homes was low – but may be underreported. Verbal abuse was most common (19% current migrant workers in Hong Kong, 8% in Singapore).


Are migrants able to ask for support when faced with forced labour?

Despite these issues, most (61%) of current and returned migrants reported that they could not ask others for help if they had problems. At the same time, many workers reported frequent contact with their friends and network in the same country. Stigma may be preventing existing social networks from providing dedicated support to those who need it. 


Few returned respondents accessed assistance (16% Filipinas and 8% Indonesians). Most (63%) support for Filipinas came from their own government. Indonesians (46%) tended to rely on friends and family. Support for Filipinas was usually (83%) financial and for Indonesians primarily psychosocial (46%).

To what extent does legislation in sending and receiving countries address the issue of forced labour?


In 2017, Indonesia adopted the “Migrant Workers Protection Law” to increase protection for migrant workers and regulate their recruitment, placement and return. While this offers improved legal protection to migrant workers, the right to freedom of movement (in this case during recruitment and migration) is notably absent. Additionally, neither the right to days off nor a maximum number of working hours is covered by the new Indonesian law. 

However, Indonesian law still permits recruitment practices which provoke forced labour concerns, such as charging significant fees to prospective migrant workers, thereby creating long-term indebtedness. While this practice is legal under national law, this report uses the ILO methodology that considers this an indicator of forced labour.


The Philippines

In the Philippines, unlicensed recruitment agencies exist despite robust legal and policy frameworks. Due to its long experience with migrant labour, the legal framework and its implementation offer a highly structured space from pre-departure seminars to monitoring agencies in receiving countries. The reports notes emerging efforts of local government offices to assist in the return and reintegration of workers. Despite this, unlicensed recruitment agencies and practices such as ‘replacement’ contract with less favorable terms upon arrival continue to exist.


Hong Kong

Migrant domestic workers are entitled to the same protection in Hong Kong as other workers there, including minimum wages, annual leave, rest days, sick time, and termination payments (among others). 

However, abusive practices by employment agencies in Hong Kong and employers persist. The current regulatory and legal framework relating to migrant domestic workers may exacerbate these exploitative situations by, for example, requiring migrant workers to live-in in all cases or only providing two weeks to find a new employment at the end of contract. 



Since 2016, Singapore has introduced further changes which increase protection for migrant domestic workers. These include a stricter sentencing framework for physical abuse cases that carried elements of psychological abuse and banning employers from safekeeping a migrant domestic worker’s salary.

Migrant domestic workers in Singapore are subject to a parallel set of rights and obligations to other migrant workers and Singaporean citizens. These lack basic definitions of what constitutes legal and illegal working conditions, leaving space for interpretation and abuse. They also offer significant power to the employer, including cancelling work permits and repatriating workers without their prior consent. Migrant workers may file a complaint if they are illegally deployed, underpaid or abused by employers.

Do returning migrant domestic workers benefit from lasting economic gains?

For some, there are lasting economic gains from labour migration, but such gains are concentrated among a few people. Most Indonesians (53%) and less than half Filipinas (41%) returning from abroad judged their financial position to have improved, while wages among employed returned Indonesian and Filipina migrants were significantly higher than prospective, employed migrants. However, the income gap narrows significantly when incorporating unemployment. Filipina prospective (21%) and returned (19%) migrant workers were employed at similar rates. Indonesian prospective (17%) and returned (28%) had more divergence.