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The Role of Trade Unions in Reducing Migrant Workers’ Vulnerability to Forced Labour and Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Subregion

by Eliza Marks, Anna Olsen | Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women
Friday, 15 January 2016 14:17 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A longer version of this article first appeared in The Anti-Trafficking Review, Issue 5.

Migrant workers in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), and across the world, are vulnerable to a spectrum of labour rights abuses - at the extreme end of which are trafficking and forced labour. But so far, anti-trafficking interventions have mostly employed border control and criminal justice approaches that focus overwhelmingly on women, children and sex work. These approaches have been criticised for failing to address all labour sectors or attend to men’s experiences, and for not placing trafficking and forced labour in the broader context of migration and work.

In the past few years, we have have seen a seen a shift away from the criminal justice model. The importance of an approach that addresses issues of work and migration, focuses on prevention and protection and emphasises multi-stakeholder collaboration was recognised by the international community through the adoption of the ILO 2014 Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930. The Protocol and its recommendations encourage states to include employers’ organisations and trade unions in the development and implementation of policies, to protect migrant workers from abusive recruitment practices. The Protocol also makes specific note of the importance of promoting freedom of association and collective bargaining and explicitly links migration for work and the vulnerability to forced labour.

One of the most effective ways of preventing the exploitation of migrant workers is by guaranteeing the right to join trade unions in destination countries. In industries with strong trade union representation, there is evidence of lower levels of exploitation, child labour, trafficking and forced labour. However, the right of migrant workers to join and lead trade unions is frequently denied in the GMS, either by the law of the destination country, the employment contract or immigration status. Additional challenges arise from current practices of trade unions. Some unions exclude migrant workers because of the preconception that migrant workers’ presence means fewer jobs and a weaker bargaining position for local workers. Many trade unions are not eager to engage with the challenging issues that surround migrant work, especially in contexts where trade unions do not enjoy public support. Unions in the region do not have a significant presence in sectors more vulnerable to labour abuse, including the sex work and domestic work sectors. These are also work sectors dominated by women – a constituency who have not always been included in traditional union activities.

However in recent years and working through the ILO’s tripartite structure, trade unions in the region have increased their engagement with migrant workers, emphasising the shared needs and challenges facing workers worldwide. Unions have proven flexible and effective partners in protecting migrant workers from forced labour and human trafficking, and providing legal and support services where migrant workers are victims of crime.

Within the framework of the ILO GMS TRIANGLE project, trade unions have been reaching out to migrant workers to provide information and support services; organising migrant workers into unions or worker associations; providing case management and legal support; and contributing to the development of legislation to better protect all workers.

In Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, trade unions are running Migrant Worker Resource Centres (MRCs), delivering safe migration training and acting as a trusted information source for migrant workers and their families before departure, both within the destination country, and upon return. In countries of origin, trade unions have an important role to play in facilitating complaints processes and addressing recruitment agency malpractice.

Trade unions have also demonstrated their ability to work collaboratively with other unions and NGOs. In Cambodia, several organisations have formed the Cambodia Trade Union Committee on Migration as an informal network to share information and put forward areas of common concern. Trade unions in the region are working towards bilateral cooperation, with Memoranda of Understanding signed between trade unions across migration corridors in the region.

A further area of collaboration is harnessing the links and commonalities between NGOs and trade unions. In Thailand’s fishing sector, the Foundation for AIDS Rights (FAR) and the Eastern Trade Union are working together to improve the organisation of fishers. Through this broad scope of actions, trade unions in the region are increasingly able to represent the rights and interests of migrant workers at the enterprise level, in the community and in policy dialogue. All of these actions work towards prevention and remedy against trafficking and forced labour.

There are still areas where unions can expand their work to become more effective in the fight against forced labour and human trafficking. Origin and destination country unions can increase bilateral cooperation, creating the opportunity for end-to-end services for migrants before departure, in country, and upon return. More effort needs to be made to reach the most vulnerable groups of workers, such as fishers with transient workplaces, and domestic workers in private homes. In efforts to expand opportunities for organisation, the emergence of initiatives to encourage flexible and sustainable unionisation for migrant workers, such as the option for portable union membership through sector-based unions or union partnerships, is becoming evident.


Eliza Marks is a Regional Labour Migration Programme Consultant for the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. She provides technical support to strengthen protections to counter the abuse and exploitation of women migrant workers in the region. Email: marks@iloguest.org.

Anna Olsen is the Technical Officer with the ILO Tripartite Action to Protect Migrant Workers within and from the Greater Mekong Subregion from Labour Exploitation (GMS TRIANGLE) project. She works on legal and policy development, assisting with capacity-building activities, providing support in drafting of legislation to protect migrants and managing activities for providing direct support to migrant workers in GMS. Email: olsena@ilo.org.