Perspectives on and Access to Justice among Cambodian Migrant Workers in Thailand
No Trust, Few Options
Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand usually do not try to pursue justice after rights violations due to a lack of trust in the police and courts, research conducted by GAATW and partners found.
Lack of information about labour and migration laws and regulations was one factor among those interviewed that made them vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking. When violations occurred they did not seek justice, either because they are undocumented and believe that this makes them ineligible for justice mechanisms or because they don’t believe they will receive a fair outcome against a Thai employer. Perceptions of what is just or fair among the migrant workers were often based on what had been agreed with a broker or employer, rather than what meets a minimum legal standard, the research found.
Interviewees spoke of lack of examples of success that might inspire their pursuit of justice - no one they knew had successfully accessed a fair resolution though the legal system. A number of workers spoke of having no other options than undertaking undocumented migration to Thailand again, despite knowing the risk of being overworked, cheated or facing physical abuse.
These are some of the main findings of our new research ‘Access Unknown: Access to justice from the perspectives of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand’, which interviewed 59 migrant workers, men and women working in seven different industries, in Thailand and after returning home. This research aimed to examine why there is still such a significant disconnect between the currently available options in the legal system and Cambodian workers’ unwillingness or inability to practically access them.
Our project employed participatory methodologies, which included capacity building for service providers, and shared findings among key stakeholders formed a platform for future collaborative work between CSOs supporting migrants in Thailand and Cambodia.
These findings come despite increased resources and efforts in recent years dedicated to improving the conditions of migrant workers and addressing trafficking in Thailand. We hope that our research can help service providers to strengthen their engagement with migrant workers by understanding the challenges, motivations and needs of migrant workers.
Governments are responsible to tackle human trafficking and protect and assist trafficked persons. Civil society, for its part, is responsible for monitoring states’ compliance with their obligations and mandates as defined in national and international legislation. To do so, it is necessary to have accurate information how governments implement these policies.
In 2016, Fundación la Paz in Bolivia, Corporación Espacios de Mujer in Colombia and ECPAT in Guatemala, together with the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), carried out an assessment of the implementation of anti-trafficking legislation in the three countries. What we found was that there was still a significant gap between the rights that trafficked persons are entitled to ‘on paper’ and the services that they receive in practice.
The assessment allowed us to systematise the available information on human trafficking in the three countries, giving clarity about the responsibilities of each governmental body and the degree of compliance. Although policies can be improved, it would be a good starting point for governments to at least fulfil their existing obligations.
In general, the authorities in the three countries were responding promptly and comprehensively to the information requests. Nevertheless, in Colombia there was reluctance to provide information about the budget allocated for anti-trafficking activities. In Bolivia the Ministry of Justice showed mistrust from the beginning, even questioning the relevance of such an assessment.
Although all three countries have enacted anti-trafficking legislation, assistance to trafficked persons is insufficient and, in some cases, non-existing.
In Colombia, trafficked persons do not receive clear information about the available assistance routes and there are no assistance and protection systems established in the law. Similarly, in Guatemala, there is no system for identification, protection, or assistance for adults and the one for minors is weak and does not have specialised protocols that take into account the specific needs of children. Additionally the Guatemalan government is not implementing the registration system for trafficked persons, nor has it established a compensation fund, both of which are set out in the law as a responsibility of the Secretariat against Sexual Violence, Exploitation and Human Trafficking. Equally troubling were the weak training and specialisation of public servants involved in the assistance to trafficked persons, prosecution of the crime and administration of justice.
All these factors, along with the excessively long duration of the investigation, undermine the rights of trafficked persons and fuel re-victimisation.
In Bolivia police officers in charge of investigating human trafficking crimes are heavily underfunded. This is not surprising, considering that in 2015 only 0.03 % of the state budget was allocated to fight not only human trafficking, but also the smuggling of migrants. In Colombia, part of the budget allocated to the Ministry of Interior for the implementation of anti-trafficking activities was used in agreements with IOM and UNODC to provide prevention and assistance services—services which these organisations in turn subcontracted to other actors. As per the Ministry of Interior 2015 Annual Procurement Plan, an agreement of around 150,000 USD was signed with IOM. Unfortunately, neither the Ministry, nor the IOM responded to our requests for information.
Specific recommendations to protect the rights of trafficked persons
The information collected through the assessment offers clear elements for advocacy and, since it is based in official data, allows us to make clear and strong recommendations to the involved actors. There are three concrete measures that governments should implement in order to protect the rights of trafficked persons: 1) provide ongoing specialised training for public servants involved in identifying, assisting and protecting trafficked persons; 2) allocate sufficient financial resources to ensure quality assistance and protection of trafficked persons and prosecution of traffickers, and 3) establish a comprehensive system for referral, assistance and protection to ensure efficient coordination between the public and private sector.
If only one thing from the legislation could be improved, the organisations are very clear. Corporación Espacios de Mujer thinks that the Colombian law is very good and that it was considerably improved last year when the requirement for trafficked persons to file a complaint in order to receive long-term assistance was removed. For their part, ECPAT in Guatemala considers that the law needs to be significantly changed to reflect all purposes of exploitation. The Bolivian law currently includes both human trafficking and migrant smuggling, which creates confusion and misinterpretations of these crimes. Fundación La Paz recommends making a clear distinction between the two.
In all three countries it is essential that all governmental bodies understand the concept of human trafficking and implement the relevant legislation in the same way.
What about civil society?
The three organisations, together with other stakeholders, have been working for years to address human trafficking in their countries. In Colombia, Espacios de Mujer trains public servants involved in the prevention of human trafficking and guides trafficked persons through the different assistance services. Additionally, in collaboration with the Colombian Alliance of CSO against Human Trafficking, it carries out research and organises debates to include the issue on the governmental agenda. ECPAT in Guatemala will carry out a consultation in 2017 to draft a law proposal which criminalises labour exploitation, begging, any form of slavery, servitude, sale of persons, recruitment of minors for criminal activities and forced and servile marriage as purposes of human trafficking. For its part, Fundación La Paz in Bolivia is actively strengthening the Bolivian Network against Human Traffic and the Bolivian Observatory of Human Trafficking to guide civil society advocacy.
It is necessary to carry out and publish this kind of assessment identifying the work done by the governmental bodies and documenting the current state of affairs. An annual assessment report will allow for the identification of the progress made in the implementation of the law and to plan an advocacy and monitoring strategy in accordance with the documented situation. To do this, it is crucial to stablish strategic alliances with CSO in order to strengthen the monitoring process and facilitate constructive criticism of the state.
GAATW knows that accurate information is essential to identify the gaps in the services that governments provide to trafficked persons and to plan advocacy actions to address these gaps. For this reason, in 2017 the Alliance will keep working with Fundación la Paz in Bolivia, Corporación Espacios de Mujer in Colombia and ECPAT in Guatemala to analyse the implementation of their national anti-trafficking legislations.
In the past several decades globalisation, unequal development between and within countries, and conflict and environmental degradation, have prompted unprecedented levels of international migration. It is estimated that there are currently nearly 250 million migrants worldwide, half of whom are women. In developed countries, demographic changes, such as aging societies, a larger female workforce, and labour market shortages prompted by a move towards service-oriented economies have created a demand for (low-wage) female workers, especially in the hospitality and care work sectors, and the entertainment sector. In developing countries, economic restructuring and industrialisation have led to the loss of traditional livelihoods, with a disproportionate effect on women, pushing many to seek work outside their communities. At the same time migration policies have not responded to this change in labour market supply and demand, leading to increasingly precarious migration and work for many women, especially those with lower education and social status.
In the past 20 years, feminists, including GAATW, have tried to bring attention to the violence, abuse and exploitation that women experience in the process of their labour migration. GAATW has tried to stress women’s perspectives, and had detailed the unintended consequences of protectionist policies like the anti-trafficking initiatives undertaken by states in ‘Collateral Damage’ back in 2007. However, the conversation about trafficking has backfired and contributed to further violating the rights of migrating women. Governments of destination countries have restricted migration opportunities, especially for low-wage workers, and increased border controls, while origin countries have placed restrictions on women’s mobility, to ‘protect’ them from trafficking. However, instead of protecting the migrant women workers, these restrictions have led to a market for clandestine and debt-financed migration, leading to the very vulnerabilities including risk of violence and trafficking that they were intended to prevent.
Access to Justice has been one of GAATW’s three thematic priorities since 2005. Through this programme, we try to understand how migrant women themselves view ‘justice’ and what factors enable and hinder their access to justice. We’ve learnt from them that justice should not solely be seen through a legal prism, which is often male oriented and focused on prosecutions. Rather, justice should be viewed comprehensively to include gender and social justice that is rooted in a right to dignity and in state accountability, that values the indivisibility and interdependence of political, economic, social, legal, and cultural human rights, and sees all of these as cumulatively leading towards the greater goal of justice.
Justice for migrant women workers needs to be embedded into migration governance mechanisms. The international community has recognised and responded to the urgent migration and refugee crisis that exploded in 2011, prompted by European and indeed a global lack of empathy towards migrants, by initiating the process of drafting Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees. They are intended to provide countries with an international roadmap on migration, which sets enforceable human rights-based standards for states in dealing with migration and its resultant impacts. At the same time, the Global Compacts need to include strong, binding protections that allow women to access justice, when their rights have been violated.
At GAATW, we are excited to be among the civil society organisations that will come to bear on this process and to bring our expertise in working with women migrant workers. If women migrant workers are able to access dignified employment opportunities, it would facilitate sustainable development and inclusive growth throughout the world. At this momentous time in history, we laud the Commission on the Status of Women 61st session and UN Women International Women’s Day, 2017 theme of ‘Women in the Changing World of Work’. The issue is pertinent in the context of the Global Compact on Migration as female migrant workers make up approximately 90% of all female migrants worldwide.
We are heartened to see the voices raised on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2017 and we lend our voice in support and solidarity with civil society and women across the world.
Across South Asia women leave their homes in the hope of improving their economic and social status and securing better lives and livelihoods. South Asian countries actively promote migration as an employment option and a foreign exchange earner but at the same time they fail in their responsibility to protect the rights of their migrant workers and citizens. Both countries of origin and destination have weak labour laws with many female-dominated jobs falling outside the purview of labour laws and regulations.
The media play a crucial role in shaping public perception about migrants and influencing migration policies. In South Asia migration is a hot topic for the media, however, most reports tend to be unbalanced and sensationalised. While men are portrayed as workers and active agents seeking to improve their lives, women are too often presented as vulnerable, passive victims of abuse. Migrant women’s immense contribution to their family and society, as well as their strength, courage and resilience in the process of migration, are rarely highlighted. In response, many South Asian countries enact protectionist restrictions on women’s mobility rather than measures to protect and strengthen their rights.
What are the factors that propel women to risk their lives in order to seek better opportunities in the Middle East and elsewhere? Are these motivations merely economic or are they also an attempt to escape oppression in families and communities? Have we ignored success stories of migrants who have made a better life for themselves and their families? Who and where are the heroines of migration rather than only ‘survivors of trafficking’? How can these narratives of journeys, adventures, and courage be told in ways that validate the women and their lives?
With some of these questions in mind, in October 2015 GAATW-IS organised a four-day workshop with print journalists from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, to discuss how the media can report on women’s labour migration in a rights-based, strength-affirming way. In 2016 we provided a small stipend to selected journalists to produce and publish several articles that highlight the positive side of women’s migration or, where abuse and trafficking had occurred – women’s strength in overcoming these obstacles. Throughout 2016 GAATW-IS and our advisors provided guidance and support to the journalists. In total 33 articles were published in local print press in the four countries in English, Nepali and Odia.
The articles highlight how migration, although often prompted by dire economic need, can be an empowering experience for women. Migration helps them send children to school, buy a piece of land, build a house or leave an abusive relationship. In some cases, migrant women become the main breadwinner in the family, which gives them more respect and power in decision making both in the family and the community. However, as some of the articles show, governments need to do a better job at providing predeparture orientation and training, as the current system leaves many women unprepared for the job and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The patterns of women’s migration are changing too. Although media reports usually focus on women who migrate to the Gulf as domestic workers, there are other life trajectories that need to be told. Women also work abroad in manufacturing, retail or as technicians, where they have more labour protections and earn better. Other women migrate to developed countries to study or improve their professional skills, but also to escape the confines of patriarchal attitudes and gender inequality in their home countries. Upon returning home, migrant women have different needs that, unfortunately, are often not met by governments. NGOs play an important role here in offering reintegration assistance to returnee migrants, as well as psychosocial support and skills building to trafficked women.
Here we would like to share some of the published articles in the hopes that they will inspire others from South Asia and beyond to look past the sensationalistic stories of abuse and trafficking and see the potentially transforming effect that migration can have for women.
In a community which frowns at a woman's decision to work outside of her house, women in Eastern Sri Lanka have managed to bypass this by migrating to Middle East countries to earn their dowries. In a strange twist of fate, these women break through conventional barriers to economic empowerment, to meet yet another traditional requirement for a woman of marriageable age - entitlement to a handsome dowry…
Women from Singair are successfully employed in different countries, mostly in the Middle East, working to turn their lives around and making hefty contributions to the country’s foreign exchange earnings every year. Once, women in Singair could not even go to their neighbouring village without their husband’s permission. Now, they contribute at least as much as their husbands — if not more – to their family income. They are not just contributing financially, but also actively taking part in the decision-making process with their male counterparts…
As the battle over reopening dance bars in Maharashtra continues, far away from the arc lights of Mumbai’s bars is a community feeling the greatest impact of the eight-year ban. The bars gave women from the Nat community an opportunity to quit sex work. Many women came to Mumbai and started earning well enough to ensure their sisters and daughters got a good education and never had to enter the trade. Their families started living better too — bigger homes, not the kaccha mud-thatched houses they once lived in. And the income meant women had control over their own life…
Countries in crisis like Iraq have been attracting a growing number of Nepali women in recent years because the working conditions and wages are better than in the Gulf. Balu Maya returned to Nepal having had worked as a caregiver in private households in Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital. She says that she accepted the job as the salary and perks that came with it were better than other opportunities in the Gulf. If things go as planned, Maya intends to go back to Kurdistan after a well-deserved break in Kathmandu…
As a single parent, foreign employment provided Kumarihamy with an income to buy a plot of land, build a house and also buy half an acre of paddy to cultivate when she eventually returned home. Most women who migrate, according to the Bureau of Foreign Employment, are in their late 20s and early 30s, are married and are driven by a desire to build a house, educate children, to overcome poverty or to escape an abusive marriage…
If the government ensures safe migration, migrant women’s contribution may be double the amount earned by their male counterparts, as they do not misuse their remittances. Women are investing in education and family maintenance, which contributes to human resource development. However, there should be proper skill training for them and reduction of fraudulent activities so they don’t become victimised during their migration…
Amarasinghe is part of a growing number of professional Sri Lankan women who have made an independent decision to migrate, to further improve their careers or professional skills. ‘I have always thought that women and men should have equal opportunity but I know that this does not take place much in Sri Lanka. There is also more exposure and ability to progress further here,’ says Amarasinghe…
Kala works as a general technician for a private company based in Abu Dhabi. Her days are spent fixing ACs and general home appliances for a girls’ school. More than 90 per cent of the 13,000 women going aboard in the first 10 months of 2016 had taken up jobs other than domestic help. Today, a majority of Nepali women are primarily seeking employment in manufacturing, retail, hospitality and service sectors. Women employed in the industrial and service sectors work in a relatively open environment…
Among other women workers in her slum, Radharani gets more respect and importance in decision making both at home and at work. She has created her own identity as a mason in the city and has broken the gender norm. She has been in the profession for the last 20 years and now things have changed and people accept her as a paint mason. Earlier, it was not so easy, sometimes they did not entrust such work to a woman…
Since 2009, soaring costs and labour paucity has been pushing textile companies away from Bengaluru into smaller towns. The trend has been so widespread that the garment workers’ trade union believes the industry may all but cease to exist in Bengaluru in a few years. The workers are happy to be back home, but there is also the fear that the industry’s geographical diffusion might weaken the labour union, which has been responsible for ensuring a minimum wage and addressing sexual harassment at the workplace…
Every year a significant number of women migrants return home. Some of them have deposits and working experience. They want to do something for financial solvency but in the absence of opportunities they can’t utilise their hard-earned money in an effective manner. Banks want women to have land or other assets as collaterals, while private money lenders charge high interest rates. The only opportunities for reintegration of returning migrant women are provided by NGOs…
Shakti Samuha has set up a nationwide network to help bring victims of trafficking together and facilitate their reintegration into society by providing legal and psychosocial counselling, livelihood and skills development training, and support in income generation. The organisation provides information about safe migration and trafficking to women wishing to go abroad. Sunita Danuwar: ‘We don’t want to stop women from migrating, we just want them to do so in a safe and legal manner.’…
18 December, International Migrants Day, comes towards the end of what has been a particularly difficult year for migrants’ rights. 2016 broke a number of devastating records, and has seen the growth of some worrying trends. There are more people on the move now than ever before. The number of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people hit a record high of over 65 million people, or one in every 113 people on Earth. Across the globe, anti-migrant, xenophobic rhetoric has been espoused by a growing right wing political establishment, finding new strength in Europe and in Trump’s election in the US. 2016 was the deadliest year yet in terms of number of deaths in the Mediterranean, while new EU agreements with Turkey and Afghanistan see the EU renege on commitments to asylum seekers and refugees, and aim to deter and return migrants at risk. The international rights protection framework appears to be weakening.
It has been called a ‘migrant crisis’; however, the ‘crisis’ can be more accurately attributed to the response to migration that we are seeing from governments. ‘Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around’, wrote Milton Friedman. What a policy response to the current ‘crisis’ will look like is at the moment up in the air.
This year has already seen some shifts in the international governance of migration. The ‘New York Declaration’, agreed at the UN in September, set out a plan to create two ‘Global Compacts’ - one on Refugees, and another on Migrants, over the course of two years, to be negotiated by governments and concluded by the end of 2018. These Global Compacts aim to set out responsibilities to international migrants, and are an important element of framing what international migration policy will look like in the future.
Thus 2017 will be an important year in which civil society must find a way to advance humane migration policies in the Global Compacts. Last week, GAATW, along with hundreds of civil society representatives from across the globe met in Dhaka, Bangladesh ahead of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, an annual international, state-led meeting on migration. Though the GFMD refuses to allow the meaningful participation of civil society in their discussions, the days preceding it were an important opportunity for migrant rights organisations to discuss what migrants need from the Global Compacts, plan our collective advocacy efforts towards states and build alliances across borders.
A number of key points emerged from five days of engaged, fruitful discussions between CSOs:
There are existing human rights standards and labour protection frameworks that can and should be applied to migration, and new mechanisms must not roll back on international human rights standards. The New York Declaration unfortunately contains some worrying indications that States may be attempting to weaken protections for child migrants.
The Global Compacts must include binding commitments to address the root causes of forced displacement, and the human rights and humanitarian needs of migrants. While an urgent response is needed, what's all the more important is that the governance decisions that are made today address not only urgent situations, but structural factors that are pushing people into migration, including unsafe migration.
Migrants must be involved in the processes that affect their lives. Support by States for meaningful and sustained involvement of migrants, trade unions, and civil society organisations in the processes at regional and international levels is needed, particularly where their voices have been formally excluded, such as in the GFMD.
Women are and must be recognised as agents of change. Women migrants, who make up nearly 50% of labour migrants, are often discussed in terms of vulnerability only. The vulnerabilities of women in the migration process are rooted in the policies that close borders and prevent social inclusion, both in countries of origin and of destination. States need to recognise the importance of laws and policies that ensure gender equality when considering how to address human trafficking.
Two-tiered economic systems in countries of destination that differentiate between migrant workers and citizens in terms of pay and access to social protections need to be eliminated. States must ensure that migrants have access to social security and labour rights in both countries of origin and destination, and can also access justice mechanisms to adjudicate these rights.
On this International Migrants Day, GAATW expresses her solidarity with all migrants and her intention to work across borders and across social justice movements throughout 2017 to ensure that the current ‘crisis’ can produce humane, rights-based responses to the needs and desires of all migrants.