#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

Select target paragraph3