#1 Research Paper Series JULY 2020 Research Paper Series Volume 1 No. 1 Building a Justice Mechanism for migrant workers against wage theft Author: Cristina Patriarca Late or missed payments of wages of migrant workers is not a new phenomenon in the Asian region. Back in 2014, a Human Rights Watch report denounced cases of domestic workers who affirmed they had experienced late payments or wage theft at the hands of their employers.1 In 2016, Engineers against Poverty published the first of a series of research outputs addressing the problem of late or absent payments of migrant construction workers’ salaries, focusing particularly on the cases in Gulf Cooperation Countries.2 The report evidences the extent of the issue and raises awareness on the effects of such a widespread practice. Not receiving payments on time or at all clearly has a strong impact on individuals’ ability to conduct their life in dignity. It also affects their capability to transfer their wages back home to re-pay debts on time (e.g. recruitment fees)3 and avoid increased interests as well as to adequately support their families. This increases the psychological stress of migrant workers and negatively impacts their wellbeing. Despite their fundamental role and the huge contributions of Asian migrant workers to the economies of both origin and destination countries,4 the impact of COVID-19 has resulted in a surge in violations and abuses against migrant workers and in the exacerbation of the long-standing problem of wage theft. On the one hand, migrant workers had to face a sudden loss of projected income due to pandemic-related economic downturn; on the other, they experienced a sudden disengagement from ongoing employment contracts without payment of dues and increased exposure to a risk of non-remuneration. “Like aftershocks during an earthquake, a large number of migrant workers were speedily notified that their services are no longer required. […] To their bewilderment, not only did the workers not receive a penny as compensation for arbitrary termination, but they faced the loss of all outstanding dues as well.”5 The rapid creation of a justice mechanism to address wage theft of migrant workers and to make employers accountable is now more important than ever. If wage theft, late payments and disrespect of migrant workers’ rights was already unacceptable, the social and economic burden put by COVID-19 on the shoulders of migrant workers has now become intolerable: governments, institutions, civil society organisations and individuals alike have a responsibility to act and remove all obstacles to dignified, just and equal working conditions for all. Creating a justice mechanism that supports migrant workers in redressing the economic losses they suffered at the hands of their employers is a key step towards the consolidation of a different societal model, truly upholding international labour standards and human dignity. It aligns with the notion of the creation of a new social contract, one that recognises 1 Human Rights Watch, “I Already Bought You” (2014) <https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/10/22/i-already-bought-you/abuseand-exploitation-female-migrant-domestic-workers > 2 Wells J., Part One: Protecting the Wages of Migrant Construction Workers (2016) Engineers Against Poverty <http://engineersagainstpoverty.org/resource/protecting-the-wages-of-migrant-construction-workers/> 3 KNOMAD, KNOMAD-ILO Migration and Recruitment Costs Surveys (2020) <https://www.knomad.org/data/recruitment-costs> 4 Including through remittances – The 2018 Migration and Remittances for Development in Asia report co-authored by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and KNOMAD indicates that in 2016 remittances to the Asia-Pacific region amounted to 244 billion USD. India, the People’s Republic of China and the Philippines were the top three recipient countries. 5 https://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/news/covid-19-and-migrant-workers-the-great-wage-robbery-1914953 1

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