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Reflections on Workers’ Rights to Safe and Decent Conditions

A Verité Reflection on Dhaka Principle 7 – Working conditions are safe and decent – the vital principle to ensure migrant workers enjoy safe and decent conditions of work, free from harassment, any form of intimidation or inhuman treatment. They should receive adequate health and safety provision and training in relevant languages.

Just a few months ago, the International Labor Organisation (ILO) officially added the right to a safe and healthy work environment as one of its Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Perhaps the disastrous consequences for workers of the COVID-19 pandemic tipped the scales so that this global standards body – representing governments, employers, and unions – finally recognized safety on the job as a so-called “core labour right.” 

I am hoping that the symbolic and practical value of this ILO action will be felt in the arena of migrant workers’ rights, where the everyday working conditions for many migrants are much less visible than they need to be. Too often, it seems the scant attention the world manages to pay to migrant workers is taken up only by recruitment-related debt bondage and horrific border scenarios that migrants endure. Of course, those issues should get attention, indeed must get more pointed attention in terms of demands for verified impact, not just rhetorical pronouncements by companies and governments. Yet, any positive advances against the forced labour of migrant workers – and for all workers – are inherently insecure if the full range of other labour rights are ignored or marginalized.

I am particularly concerned that enough attention and resources are not being directed toward the dangerous and unhealthful conditions under which many migrants work and live. Dhaka Principle 7 (Working Conditions are Safe and Decent) reminds us very clearly of the centrality for migrants of safe and decent conditions. As we reflect on the ten-year anniversary of the Dhaka Principles, we must recommit to advocating for the full range of rights and decent conditions for migrants. After all, the everyday work life of migrants is as consequential as their recruitment experience: note that the ILO’s Indicators of Forced Labour methodology also articulates the inextricable link between fraudulent recruitment and actual conditions of work, such as degrading living conditions, inadequate pay, and abusive treatment. Success for migrant workers means respecting a comprehensive range of rights and meeting a diverse set of standards: the mutually reinforcing Dhaka Principles are very purposefully presented as a circle, not a prioritized list or a hierarchical pyramid. Yet, I fear that all too often Dhaka Principle #7 is overlooked in favour of other factors that are seen as more salient or serious.

Employers too often ignore or underinvest in creating and maintaining safe working conditions in part because of lack of government enforcement of legal standards. The pervasive restraints on worker collective action make it extremely challenging or impossible for workers to speak up for better conditions in a sustained and effective way. These precarious conditions are usually even worse for migrants, as those with power (labour recruiters, host governments and communities, and employers) behave as if they believe migrants are entitled to less. Indeed, in many countries, migrants have fewer legal rights. It’s no surprise that the so-called “3-D Jobs” (dirty, difficult, and dangerous) are often held by migrants who lack choice, lack collective agency, and are often perceived as “less than,” nearly disposable.

As we redirect scrutiny to migrants’ workplaces and their recruitment experiences, we should also expand our notion of what a healthy workplace is. We need to look beyond “occupational health” – minimizing exposure to toxins, dangers from machinery, fire hazards, and the like – to encompass the full health and well-being of workers. Far from home, often living and working in precarious circumstances and burdened by debt, migrant workers face additional stresses that compound the physical and psychological health risks normally associated with the “dirty, dangerous, difficult” work that migrants often do. The additional burdens migrants faced (and continue to face) with the Covid-19 pandemic are emblematic of how the most vulnerable workers bear the brunt of workplace hazards, be they from airborne pathogens, extreme heat, and over-crowded housing. A fuller notion of migrant worker health and safety should encompass decent housing, safe and nutritious food, preventative health care and education, reproductive health care, and mental health services, among others.

As we think about “safe and decent” conditions, those involved in due diligence and compliance in global supply chains must work more closely with civil society groups and migrants themselves to carefully elucidate the many “hidden” issues migrants face, such as physical, sexual, and psychological abuse that are harder to see, measure, and talk about. The “usual” health and safety issues such as toilet conditions and chemical storage (and the customary way of assessing them) are frankly of a different nature altogether from matters like intimidation, harassment, and the unique stressors borne by those with precarious and/or provisional work and legal status. We must grapple forthrightly, yet sensitively, with the health and safety challenges caused by the systemic lack of power and standing migrants encounter in most countries and especially how they are affected by living and working in isolation, with restricted mobility and a pervasive sense of being alien in a foreign country or even different region within their own country.

When designing, implementing, or assessing compliance efforts where migrant workers are present, it is important to think from the perspective of the migrant: is she given training on health and safety matters in her own language and in ways that are accessible to those with little formal schooling? Are migrants provided with grievance mechanisms that have been designed and implemented with their input in order to ensure trust and effectiveness? Are the full range of physical and mental health needs of migrants considered standard or are only occupational safety requirements prioritized? Are migrant workers integrated into meaningful committees, unions, or other mechanisms by which workers engage with management? Are local civil society groups actively invited to engage with migrants in order to serve their needs in cooperation with employers?

Those who have been working on migrant recruitment abuse issues for many years may remember a time when outrageously high overtime hours for migrants were the only issue that garnered attention in conventional supplier compliance efforts. We have been successful in changing the paradigm so that suppliers and buyers are also held to account for the way in which migrants end up in a job. We now need to re-focus that lens so that we reconsider the interplay, the inextricably linked nature of recruitment abuses and everyday poor working conditions. Expanding our notion of what constitutes safe and healthy conditions for migrant workers will benefit all workers, as well as the businesses who depend on them. 

Author: Shawn MacDonald is the CEO of Verité, a civil society organization that promotes labour rights in global supply chains through research, assessments, training, consultation, and policy advocacy.  

The article has been published here

Photo credit: Workers at a construction site. Shutterstock/ymgerman

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