Gennaio 25, 2023

Understanding migrant workers’ exploitation

Image: Operational framework of labour exploitation, focusing on migrant workers in manual low-skilled jobs.

In mainstream media and academic research, labour exploitation tends to refer to the most extreme situations amounting to human rights violations, like modern slavery, human trafficking or forced labour. For example, we can easily think about the vivid debates around the World Cup in Qatar and allegations of modern slavery or ‘exploitation’ of migrant workers in construction. In fact, we often think about migrant workers being exploited. They may be assaulted, obliged to live in overcrowded unsanitary accommodation, underpaid or not paid at all, or their passport may be confiscated by their employer. But is exploitation only such severe situations?

Different stakeholders and experts have different definitions – or conceptualisation – of labour exploitation. In public health, we can categorise them into two main schools of thoughts. The Human Rights school of thought mostly focuses on these extreme and criminal forms amounting to violations of human rights. The Social Determinants of Health school is rooted in a Marxist approach when discussing the issue of exploitation, and looks at the issues more broadly by going beyond direct exposure and looking at the structural aspects of labour exploitation such as the type of contract or ability to enforce rights for instance. One thing we know and all agree on, is that migrant workers are often employed in low-paid or low-skilled jobs and are often severely exploited. So how can we define labour exploitation when focussing on migrant workers in low-skilled jobs?

In my research I have engaged 32 academic and non-academic professional experts from different countries, perspectives and fields (e.g. trade unionists, academics in law and public health, international organisations) to propose a common – but more importantly an operational definition of such migrant labour exploitation. They individually generated small statements describing what they considered situations of exploitation. They then grouped together all the statements generated and rated them according to their importance in defining a situation as exploitative.

Four components were necessary for the experts to consider a situation exploitative. These were ranked from the most to the least severe issues: ‘Shelter and personal security’; ‘Finance and migration’; ‘Health and safety’; and ‘Social and legal protection’. The gradient in the rating reflected the existence of a continuum of labour exploitation as suggested in previous work. The most severe aspect to exploitation was threats to the workers’ ability to have ‘Shelter and personal security’. It covered situations such as intimidation, deprivation of basic needs or restriction of freedom and movement. Issues with ‘Finance and migration’ came second and included situations where workers had their passports withdrawn, as is the case in many situations of modern slavery or their salary withheld, unpaid or underpaid. Third, ‘Health and safety’ hazards, including psychosocial hazards such as having no access to protective equipment or harassment were also considered as exploitative. Finally, the lack of ‘Social and legal protection’ considers lack of days off in general or of specific time-off for sick or care leave, contract issues, intense workload issues or lack benefits. Each of these aspects of exploitation tap into different avenues to help prevent and fight against labour exploitation.

Clearly, some aspects such as the threats to personal security and the withholding of passport imply situations that may be happening ‘behind closed doors’ by ‘nasty’ employers and requires serious investment in labour inspections at workplaces and enforcement bodies to be able to prosecute exploiters. This may be difficult and long – but possible – for states to address. However, issues discussed mostly in the social and legal protection are elements directly under the control of governments and States. This includes issues related to limited labour rights like the lack of sick leave or limited access to benefits, or the use of casual contracts that have less protection, or for some countries obligations to have contracts with more or less protection for workers.

At the dawn of a ‘cost-of living’ crisis in Europe and beyond which would push those at the margins further down the poverty line, migrant workers – along with other precarious workers – risk to face further exploitation. The framework proposed in my paper could serve as guidance for policy-makers and practitioners who have conceptualised exploitation from different perspectives to have a common framework and consider the different facets of exploitation when discussing labour conditions and protection for (migrant) workers. We cannot ‘build back better’ without addressing the exploitation of the biggest group of international migrants globally.

Source: Boufkhed, S., Thorogood, N., Aditi, C., & Durand, M. A. (2022). Building a better understanding of labour exploitation’s impact on migrant health: An operational framework. PloS one, 17(8), e0271890.

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About Sabah Boufkhed

Sabah Boufkhed

Sabah Boufkhed is a Research Associate in Global Health at the Cicely Saunders Institute, King’s College London. She is working on the Palliative Care aspects of the Research For Health In Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa (R4HC-MENA) project; and has led research aiming at evaluating the preparedness of palliative care services to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa, MENA, India and Asia-Pacific region. Prior to this work, she conducted research on migrant workers and health. She co-developed a conceptual framework of migrants’ labour exploitation for use in public health with multidisciplinary international experts and Latin American immigrant workers in the UK.

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