Overseas Filipino Worker Voices: A Study of Forced Labor Among Migrant Workers from the Philippines
Overseas labor migration has been a feature of the Filipino economy for over a century. Over the last thirty years, overseas labor migration has become an increasingly important part of the country’s economy, reducing unemployment and strengthening US dollar reserves. However, many Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) —particularly those employed as domestic workers or in occupations viewed as “low-skilled”—are often subject to unethical recruitment mechanisms, deceptive hiring practices, and forced labor conditions after arriving in the receiving country. This situation has been exacerbated by the profound economic, public health, and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which have caused uncertainty, skyrocketing unemployment, and large-scale repatriation among migrant workers globally.
This study sought to determine the pathways leading to forced labor/trafficking in persons (TIP) and the distribution of forced labor indicators among samples of OFWs in several destination countries and industries. In concert with GFEMS, the University of Philippines Centre International de Formation des Autorités et Leaders (CIFAL), and grantee organizations including the Fair Employment Foundation (FEF), Two Six Technologies (TST) implemented this multi-cohort survey effort and examined the occurrence, distribution and dimensions of labor exploitation among study participants in three distinct study cohorts.
Findings show that overall, approximately 26.4% of all study participants reported experiencing Tier 2* or worse forced labor conditions, and that domestic work—a female-dominated profession among OFWs—is associated with an even higher rate of forced labor with 42.9% of domestic workers experiencing conditions meeting at least Tier 2 conditions. Among other recommendations included in the report, researchers call for enhancements to pre-departure training to include content that better prepares workers for the risks they may face abroad.
For more findings and recommendations, read the full report.
*For the analysis, forced labor was categorized by levels of severity with Tier 1A being most severe and including threats of violence to self or family, restricted movement, and debt bondage. Tier 1 included both threats and restricted movement. Tier 2 does not include threats of violence or restricted movement but may include working more hours than agreed upon, working on rest days, and debt bondage.
This study was funded by a grant from the United States Department of State through the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS). The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Department of State or GFEMS.
GFEMS Research and Programming: Strengthening Systems for Filipino Migration
Migrant workers are critical contributors to the global economy, and the Philippines is a leading country of origin for migrant labor. Each year, over 2 million Filipinos work overseas – nearly one million of whom are hired into so-called “elementary occupations”, including construction, transportation, and domestic work. These lower-skilled migrant workers, and female domestic workers in particular, are highly vulnerable to exploitation – often subject to unethical recruitment mechanisms, deceptive hiring practices, and forced labor conditions after arriving in the receiving country.
From 2018 to 2022, GFEMS supported research and programming, led by our implementing partners Two Six Technologies (TST), Blas F. Ople Policy Center (Ople Center), International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the Fair Employment Foundation (FEF), to better understand and address issues across the labor migration system.
Study findings indicate that Filipino migrant workers face considerable risks to their freedom, and economic and
Findings from this research and programming help to (1) understand and address vulnerabilities for Filipino domestic workers; (2) equip government and other stakeholders to investigate and tackle labor abuses; and (3) support a shift towards ethical recruitment practices in the sector.
For more findings and recommendations, download the briefing.
This research was funded by a grant from the US Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.
The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery Announces New Program to Support Migrant Workers in Malaysia, Indonesia
The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) is excited to announce a new partnership with a corporate foundation to create safer migration pathways for migrant workers in Malaysia and Indonesia. The foundation’s $1.2 million commitment will empower more workers with tools and knowledge to migrate safely and will engage businesses to promote ethical recruitment and fair labor practices.
An estimated 200,000 workers in Malaysia face conditions of exploitation and forced labor. As a result of these challenges, Malaysia recently downgraded to the lowest ranking in the U.S. Department of State 2021 Trafficking In Persons report.
The Fund’s new program will expand support for migrant workers to Malaysia, reaching over one thousand migrants, to empower workers, support safe migration, and expand opportunities for decent work. With partners ELEVATE, Diginex, and Winrock, GFEMS will launch SafeStep, a best-in-class mobile app providing resources and information for migrant workers, in Malaysia. This program builds on an initial $1.3 million, two-year investment during which GFEMS and ELEVATE developed and piloted SafeStep with workers migrating from Bangladesh to the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. This pilot revealed the potential for safer migration when migrants are equipped with reliable and accessible information. This additional investment will enable SafeStep to expand to Malaysia, supporting user growth in Bangladesh and expanding functionality for employers. This effort will also be boosted by a $450,000 investment by The Walt Disney Company supporting development of a grievance mechanism for workers in Malaysia.
The program will also support the growth of Pinkcollar, an ethical recruitment startup in Malaysia that places overseas workers in safe jobs without charging any fees. With this support, Pinkcollar will expand their operations to Indonesia, supporting more migrants to find safe employment and deepening the business case for the ethical recruitment models needed to disrupt forced labor. To tell the story of how these efforts can improve the migration journey for workers across Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, GFEMS will partner with DAWNING to conduct a longitudinal study of Pinkcollar and SafeStep’s work and produce a compelling multimedia report.
“The Fund is proud to expand this innovative program that empowers migrant workers to make informed decisions, as well as contribute to ethical and sustainable businesses. This investment will allow us to scale up promising interventions and launch in new places. Ultimately, we aim to create breakthroughs by changing exploitative industry standards.”
Prevalence Estimate: Forced Labor among Ugandan Workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council
Our findings suggest that the vast majority of Ugandan migrants in the Middle East experience conditions consistent with human trafficking. At the same time, promoting more ethical recruitment practices may help to address this issue.
This study was carried out by ICF and the Department of Social Work and Social Administration, Makerere University, who conducted a respondent-driven sampling (RDS) study in Uganda. The RDS study targeted migrant workers who currently work in the Middle East or who have worked in the Middle East in the past 3 years to explore the prevalence and characteristics of human trafficking experienced during their recruitment and employment.
To our knowledge, this study is the first to explore the characteristics of working and living conditions among Ugandans working in the Middle East using a representative sample, as well as the first to offer a prevalence estimate of human trafficking for Ugandans in the Middle East.
The purpose of this study is to inform Global Fund to End Modern Slavery-funded programming on more effective methods to reduce the risk of human trafficking and support survivors of human trafficking in Uganda.
The study found that the majority (89%) of migrants reported experiences consistent with human trafficking and more than one-fourth (27%) of migrants experienced severe exploitation, defined as threats of or actual violence or psychological abuse. However, the study also found that the prevalence of human trafficking and severe exploitation were lower among migrants who experienced fewer instances of unethical recruitment. In fact, regression analysis indicates that with each additional unethical recruitment practice experienced, the odds of both human trafficking and severe exploitation nearly triple. This suggests that efforts to promote more ethical recruitment processes may help to reduce the prevalence of trafficking among Ugandan migrants in the Middle East.
For key findings and recommendations, download the briefing. For more, download the full report.
In Uganda, Women Judges are Leading Efforts to Ensure Justice Systems Heal not Harm
This post is co-authored with Justice Joyce Kavuma and the International Association of Women Judges.
In the first of a series of training modules prepared by the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) for judicial officers in Uganda, learners are presented a case scenario to demonstrate how courts and judicial processes can re-traumatize a victim.
They are first asked to look at a photograph depicting a young woman standing before a judge. She is the complaining witness in a rape trial. Beside her is the prosecutor and nearly a dozen other men. Most of them are counsel for the defense. One, barely visible in the background, is her father. Another, just a few feet away, is the defendant, the man she accuses of assaulting her.
Stepping back from the photograph, the trainers provide additional case details. The witness, as the judge informed all parties, waived her right to a forensic examination. The judge nor the witness provide further explanation, but the trainers offer additional context. In the jurisdiction where this case is being adjudicated, a forensic examination requires the accuser to identify the accused in the physical space of a forensics lab. This is to ensure that the accused cannot solicit another person to submit DNA. In instances where the accusing party lives a distance from the lab, transport is provided. The accused is entitled to the same, meaning accused and accuser may be transported together in the same vehicle, sometimes over a distance as great as 8 hours.
The trainers open the session on victim-centered approaches with this study to show how a case might look different when viewed from a victim’s perspective. Understanding that certain practices can inflict further harm, judges can play a critical role in ensuring victims are not re-traumatized by their experiences in the courtroom. While judges are trained to protect the rights of criminal defendants, a “victim-centered” approach serves as a reminder that victims, too, have rights that judges must protect. Building victim-centered courts is not to tip the scale against neutrality but simply to level it.
Labor Trafficking in Uganda
Africa is the world’s youngest continent; almost 60% of the current population is under the age of 25. As Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050- from 1 billion to nearly 2.4 billion inhabitants-it is apparent that this youthful trend will continue. What is also apparent is that many African economies are struggling to absorb this youth bulge, leading to high youth unemployment rates across the continent. Even among those who do have a job, the vast majority –almost 95%- work in the informal economy.
In Uganda, where more than 75% of the population is under 30, youth unemployment rates are among the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is especially true in rural areas where most of Uganda’s youth reside, and especially true for girls who are far less likely to enroll and complete their education than boys. The unemployment rate for girls and women is more than double that of boys and men.
Poverty and lack of employment opportunities are a key driver of migration in the region (for more on drivers of migration, read our previous post.) While much migration in Uganda is internal, primarily from rural to urban areas, neighboring countries, including Kenya, continue to attract both skilled and unskilled migrants from Uganda. Uganda is also a destination country for labor migrants from other countries in the region. In recent years, migrants have increasingly begun to look beyond the continent, particularly to the Middle East for employment opportunities. It is estimated that remittances to Uganda’s economy from people working in the Middle East increased from $51.4 million in 2010 to $309.2 million in 2018.
While a boon to the economy and the families that these remittances support, migration is not without risk, especially for the thousands of women employed as domestic workers in Middle Eastern homes. The majority of international trafficking cases identified in Uganda involve young women trafficked into domestic service in the Middle East.
While Uganda continues to implement measures to prevent trafficking, including cracking down on illegal recruitment agencies and investing in awareness raising activities, the justice sector similarly must take action. To ensure victims and survivors of trafficking are not re-traumatized by the justice system, judicial officers must be trained in victim-centered and trauma-informed approaches. This is exactly what IAWJ, with support from the Global Fund, is doing in Uganda.
How Justice Systems Can Re-traumatize Trafficking Survivors
In Uganda, the rights of the accused are outlined and upheld in national law and justice systems. The Ugandan Constitution, for example, provides for the accused’s right to a fair hearing including the right to a speedy and public trial; the right to presumption of innocence until proven guilty; the right to legal counsel; and the right to appear before the court in person. While upholding the rights of the accused is foundational to any meaningful justice system, the rights of the victim must be similarly upheld. This is especially true in trafficking cases where the potential to inflict further trauma runs high.
The 2009 Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act (PTIP Act) and its corresponding regulations (2019) encourage a victim-centered approach and impose responsibilities on law enforcement, prosecutors, judicial officers, and other government officials to protect and support victims. Indeed, it sets out specific measures to ensure victims are protected and supported. These include not penalizing victims for any crimes committed as a direct result of being trafficked; providing victims access to health, social, medical, counseling and psychological services where possible; protecting the privacy and confidentiality of victims; and providing for compensation and restitution of victims. The PTIP Act lays out clear measures for supporting a victim-centered approach. The problem? Very few people know what it is.
Trafficking is a complicated and multi-faceted crime, and the laws designed to prevent, prosecute and punish it are relatively recent innovations. One of the challenges of combatting this modern form of slavery is that in the absence of stakeholder training and awareness, trafficking victims are likely to come to court not as victims/witnesses, but rather as civil or criminal defendants. They may be accused of violating immigration laws, charged in labor disputes, or indicted for petty theft (in cases where the defendant is acting under the control of another.) Judicial actors who know and understand the trafficking statute may recognize that this is at base a trafficking situation. They may then be able to refer the matter for investigation and prosecution. At a minimum, if judges and judicial sector officials have the knowledge and skills they need, they can avert further injustice to the victim — who may be in court as a criminal defendant. This is why continuing judicial education is so important.
How IAWJ is Strengthening the Justice Sector’s Response
As part of its training, IAWJ seeks to equip justice sector actors to identify possible TIP victims in such cases. They train participants to recognize red flags of human trafficking and ask appropriate screening questions. Justice Kavuma, notes that until and unless judicial officers undergo training, such as that provided by IAWJ, identifying victims will remain a challenge.
Unless we are linked together, the chain of justice breaks.
Training individual justice sector actors in victim-centered approaches can help ensure survivors access justice and support services. But to ensure victim-centered and trauma-informed approaches at every stage of the criminal justice process, they must be embedded at the local and regional levels. IAWJ’s “Train the Trainers” program drew participants from across districts who can then share that knowledge with judicial officers in their own communities.
IAWJ also supports regional dialogues to build and strengthen a coordinated cross-border response. Judges and Magistrates from Kenya and Uganda gather to share information and experiences and collaborate on best practices to address trafficking in persons and support victims and survivors. “We all work together like a chain. Unless we are linked together, the chain of justice breaks.” For Justice Kavuma, the significance of cross-border dialogues and a coordinated victim-centered approach is paramount if trafficking is truly to be eradicated. IAWJ is currently developing a bench book to reinforce this message.
Justice systems play a critical role in combatting trafficking. Rooting them in trauma-informed and victim-centered approaches is how we ensure these systems support recovery and not re-traumatization.
If you are interested in partnering with the Global Fund, please reach out.
The program referenced in this article is funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.
The International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization whose members represent all levels of the judiciary worldwide and share a commitment to equal justice for women and the rule of law. Created in 1991, the IAWJ has grown to a membership of over 6000 in 100 countries.
Prevalence Estimate: Forced Labor Among Kenyan Workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council
In essence, practically everyone heading to the GCC as a migrant worker from Kenya would become a victim of forced labor at some point.
GFEMS has launched a series of projects to combat forced labor among Kenyan migrant workers. As a part of this effort, GFEMS engaged NORC to measure the prevalence of forced labor among recently returned Kenyan migrant workers from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (e.g., Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia).
There were extensive forced labor violations among surveyed respondents. We found that 98.73% of the sample, or 1,007 out of the total 1,020 respondents, reported having experienced at least one of the four categories of workplace labor abuses, or were unable to exit an abusive employment situation. We estimated the rate of forced labor among the Kenyan migrant labor population in GCC countries to be 98.24%. In essence, practically everyone heading to the GCC as a migrant worker from Kenya would become a victim of forced labor at some point.
For key findings and recommendations, download the briefing. For more, download the full report:
The Long Return: Supporting Reintegration for Returning Migrants in Bangladesh
Farishta* was sick and bleeding when she arrived at the recruitment agency. She had been dropped there only after her illness had become severe enough that her employers worried she might not survive. Concerned about their own futures, the couple that had exploited and abused Farishta as a domestic worker in their home for the last six months finally returned her to the same recruitment agency in Saudi Arabia that had placed her. But, after a day, the agency delivered Farishta to the police. Claiming she was in the country illegally, the police held Farishta for another eight days, and for another eight days, she was denied medical attention. Farishta was told she could go home if she could quickly arrange the cost of a ticket back to Bangladesh. From the police station, Farishta contacted her husband who was able to borrow BDT 40,000 (USD $471) to bring Farishta home. It seemed her harrowing experience was coming to an end.
However, when Farishta returned to Bangladesh her struggle continued. She was shunned by her family, her oldest son refusing to call her mother. While coping with the emotional trauma of rejection, Farishta’s physical health continued to deteriorate. Still bleeding and growing weaker every day, Farishta borrowed money to see a gynecologist who advised surgery and medication. Farishta could afford neither. Though she had escaped abuse and exploitation at the hands of her overseas employer, the trauma Farishta experienced and continued to endure after returning home was overwhelming. She had thoughts of taking her own life.
Struggling to reintegrate into her family and community, Farishta was introduced to Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a community-based migrant workers’ organization in Bangladesh.
With OKUP’s support, Farishta began to heal physically and mentally.
She received needed medical treatment and psycho-social counseling. At the same time, OKUP provided counseling to Farishta’s family to help them understand her trauma and to engage them in supporting Farishta’s recovery. Farishta’s relationship with her family has improved and she is reconnecting with her eldest son.
Family support was critical for Farishta’s recovery and reintegration, but Farishta also needed a sustainable livelihood for herself and her family. After excelling in OKUP’s life skills training course, she was referred to a partner organization, Caritas Bangladesh, for assistance to start a small business. Farishta is now raising ducks and chickens, selling eggs to earn money for her family. She has plans to acquire more animals and to remain at home in Bangladesh.
Though her migration experience was one of pain and exploitation, Farishta found a way forward with the support of OKUP and others working to strengthen reintegration support for returning migrants. While providing necessary psychosocial and livelihood support to survivors like Farishta, OKUP is working with a consortium of GFEMS-funded partners to raise community awareness of the challenges returnees face and to advocate improvements in government services and response. Together, we are supporting returnees to sustainably reintegrate and reforming systems to better serve survivors and vulnerable migrants. Farishta, while still managing her own trauma, has begun working with other returnees in her community to help them recover and thrive.
The Challenges of Return
Remittances are the lifeblood of millions of families in Bangladesh. In 2019, remittances sent via formal channels topped $18.3 billion USD- or 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. For families of overseas workers, this money accounts for 85 percent of daily expenditures; sixty percent of these families are totally dependent on remittances for their daily expenses. Multiple family members often rely on the wages of a single migrant worker, creating pressure on migrant workers to “succeed” abroad.
The expectation that migration will improve a family’s financial situation often shapes a migrant’s return experience. Those who return with no money or savings are commonly viewed as “failed” migrants and are ostracized by communities and even families. For the women and men who are deceived, exploited, and abused as overseas workers, rejection at home only adds to the trauma and isolation experienced abroad. Women especially are shunned by communities and family members for sexual abuse they endured, either real or perceived. According to a recent report by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, 52% of more than 300 female returnees interviewed felt there was “a change of social attitude” towards them after their return. Many reported that they had become common targets for gossip; that they experienced an increase in judgmental attitudes towards them upon return; and that they were regularly subjected to derogatory remarks from community members. Significantly, none of the interviewees made any formal complaints to any authority regarding their treatment. The outbreak of a global pandemic in early 2020 only increased the social stigma surrounding returnees as they were now branded carriers of COVID-19. Without improved systems and services to provide returning migrants needed psychosocial and livelihoods support, many will again turn abroad and to the same unsafe channels of migration.
Confronting extreme financial hardship at home, Afsari made the decision to seek work abroad after hearing she could earn a decent wage. Afsari endured 15 months of exploitation and abuse before she was able to earn enough to pay off the debt of BDT 160,000 (approximately $1,890 USD) owed to a labor recruiter. Afsari returned home, but without the wages she had been promised and now under the weight of new trauma. She was introduced to Caritas where she completed tailoring training, began teaching tailoring classes, and received seed money to begin her own tailoring business. Afsari now earns enough to cover her family’s daily needs, including schooling for her daughter, and is saving for her future.
Supporting Sustainable Reintegration
According to IOM, “reintegration can be considered sustainable when returnees have reached levels of economic self-sufficiency, social stability within their communities, and psychosocial well-being that allow them to cope with (re)migration drivers.” When sustainable reintegration is achieved, future decisions about migration become a matter of choice, rather than necessity. This is what we are working to achieve with our partners in Bangladesh. Supported by funding from the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) is leading a project with OKUP and Caritas Bangladesh to provide short- and long-term support for survivors and vulnerable migrants and advocate for strengthened government response and reintegration programs.
Working together, CAFOD, OKUP, and Caritas Bangladesh are able to provide holistic services to returnees and vulnerable migrants, ensuring migrants can access needed support from the moment they return to that when they no longer need it. With an understanding that migrants have different migration experiences and different needs upon return, partners in the consortium leverage their unique strengths and networks to provide each returnee tailored yet comprehensive support.
Recovery and Reintegration Begins the Moment a Migrant Returns
OKUP provides short-term emergency service for returnees, including airport pick up and shelter services. In the worst of scenarios, OKUP coordinate airport transfers of bodies to the families of the migrant worker; they also support families to apply to the government to pay for the funeral costs. In addition, OKUP aids with medical referrals and applications for government health grants that can pay a migrant’s medical costs. They provide psychosocial counseling to returnees and their families, and, in instances of severe trauma, OKUP extends long-term counseling support.
Beyond emergency support, OKUP have established community-led groups of returnee migrant workers known as migrant forums and facilitates their regular meetings to provide information to returnees and vulnerable migrants on relevant matters including how to access loans and other financial support. During one recent meeting, more than 200 migrants were supported to access government benefits- a vital lifeline as the pandemic continues to shake financial security.
Sustainable Reintegration Must Engage the Community
OKUP also engages the community to support reintegration efforts. Through outreach and awareness-raising activities, OKUP is helping communities understand the unique challenges migrants confront and working to reduce the social stigma that attaches to them upon return. With more than a decade of experience supporting returnees and vulnerable migrants, OKUP understands the significance of community engagement, and employs traditional and non-traditional methods, including theatrical performance, to build these networks of support. For example, in an OKUP-sponsored play about a woman’s migration journey and her abuse overseas, the focus is on her return and the importance of community support. These efforts are reaching thousands; in just one quarter, OKUP’s outreach activities engaged over 17,000 individuals across 8 high-migration districts.
Sustainable Reintegration Must Include Livelihoods Support
Building on OKUP’s sustainable reintegration efforts, Caritas Bangladesh provides skills and entrepreneurship training to prepare survivors and vulnerable migrants for sustainable employment. Participants are able to self-select their economic reintegration activities, selecting a business track that draws on their own skills and interests. With agency to determine their own futures, survivors and returnee migrants can choose employment opportunities that meet their own needs, increasing the likelihood of success and sustainability.
To date, Caritas Bangladesh has supported over 600 individuals to start their own small businesses. After completing entrepreneurship training and courses covering subjects such as business principles, trade licensing, and accounting, graduates are supported to develop small business plans before Caritas Bangladesh transfers seed money to help them push these ideas forward. Caritas Bangladesh currently supports survivors and vulnerable migrants across nearly 50 different vocations, from animal husbandry to tailoring to auto work.
It is admirable to see the Government of Bangladesh is committed to improving reintegration services for migrant workers.
Sustainable Reintegration Must be Supported by Government
While supporting individual returnees to reintegrate, the consortium is also advocating local and state government to strengthen referral systems. OKUP is coordinating with the Wage Earners’ Welfare Board to strengthen referral services from the airport to ensure returnees in need of support are identified and referred for services. Though COVID has imposed new challenges, diverting government resources and capacity, progress is being made. OKUP reports that new cases are starting to be referred. Building on these advocacy efforts, CAFOD, in collaboration with a team of research consultants, recently published a report identifying gaps in the current referral system. The report includes several recommendations and is being used as an advocacy tool for the government to strengthen referral systems. The consortium remains steadfast in its advocacy efforts and continues to press relevant officials to take action. In 2022, the consortium will be hosting a series of referral guideline workshops with government Ministry officials to discuss findings from the referral research.
“It is admirable to see the Government of Bangladesh is committed to improving reintegration services for migrant workers. These workshops provide an excellent opportunity to develop a strong, holistic and inclusive referral mechanism which will dramatically improve the support returnee migrants, particularly survivors of abuse and exploitation, receive when they return to Bangladesh.”
Richard Sloman (CAFOD)
While CAFOD, OKUP, and Caritas Bangladesh are providing critical support to vulnerable individuals and communities, their partnership is what is transforming systems and creating sustainable change. Sharing knowledge, building partner capacity, and providing comprehensive and holistic care, they are supporting returnees through recovery and reintegration. Working together, they are changing the systems that enable modern slavery to thrive.
*Some names in this blog have been changed to protect identities.
GFEMS is providing critical, early operational and strategic support to Pinkcollar, the first ethical recruitment agency operating out of Malaysia. In this project, Pinkcollar will expand in two directions: to a new source country (Indonesia) and sector (manufacturing). The Fund’s support will help Pinkcollar accelerate the process of growing and operating an agency. By the end of the project, they will have established operations in Indonesia, placed approximately 50 workers in Malaysia, and be well positioned to double their worker placements year over year. After Fair Employment Foundation and The Ethical Recruitment Agency – India, Pinkcollar is the third ethical recruitment agency, and the first in Malaysia, that GFEMS has supported.
Replicating What Works
Pinkcollar, Malaysia’s first agency created for ethical recruitment, opened its doors in 2019. It did so with the support and guidance of Fair Employment Foundation (FEF), a successful ethical recruitment agency operating in Hong Kong and partner of the Global Fund. FEF’s CEO is certain that, with more agencies pursuing ethical recruitment models, we can “achieve our aim of ending forced labour of migrant workers.”Read More
Since November 2017, Pinkcollar has set out to do one thing: improve recruitment and hiring practices for Malaysia’s domestic work sector.
Pinkcollar Employment Agency is a professional recruitment agency licensed by the Malaysian Labour Department and accredited by the Philippine Overseas Labour Administration. It is a first-of-its-kind solution for employers looking for a better way to hire domestic workers, and for workers seeking safe and dignified jobs.
A Better Way to Do Business: Investing in the Fair Model to End Forced Labor
Ethical business means better business. This is the message that our partner, Fair Employment Foundation (FEF), continues to share with businesses and recruiting agencies across the globe.
Founded on the belief that “forced labor is a solvable world problem,” FEF works to fix broken recruitment systems and build market solutions to end the forced labor of migrant workers. FEF is pushing back against agencies and training centers that focus more on the business of migration than the migrants themselves. With an eye on profits, recruiters are often incentivized to place those who are willing to pay rather than those who are best fitted for a job. They are also less invested in making sure migrants are prepared for work abroad –if a worker quits or gets fired, the agency can simply charge another worker the same fee. In other words, it is on the backs of migrant workers that recruitment agencies and training institutes succeed.
To begin to transform a recruitment system that harms both workers and employers, FEF established its own placement agency in Hong Kong in 2014. Two years later, the Fair Training Center opened its doors in Manila, Philippines. In becoming both placement agency and trainer, FEF is transforming industry standards and driving change to end forced labor.
Forced Labor in the Domestic Service Industry
While one in eight Hong Kong households currently employs a migrant domestic worker, this number is only expected to grow as the country learns to cope with a rapidly aging population. The Filipino government estimates that one in four of the 11.5 million migrant domestic workers in the world are Filipina women; Hong Kong alone is home to 200,000 Filipina domestic workers. Despite laws governing the sector, the domestic service industry has the largest share of forced labor in the private economy, accounting for nearly 25% of cases. Debt bondage – often the result of exploitative fees — is one of the most prevalent forms of forced labor. Domestic workers are especially vulnerable to abuse as they are employed in private households, their labor unseen and therefore unregulated. 80% of domestic workers are women.
Given the high prevalence of Filipinas in the domestic service industry and the high rate of exploitation in this sector, we partnered with FEF to scale its ethical recruitment model. From our shared commitment to systems change, we are working to build sustainable and scalable solutions that address the problem at each stage of the recruitment process, from pre-departure to placement and beyond.
Training for Work AND Life Overseas
The Filipino government currently mandates that migrant workers obtain a certificate affirming skill level from the country’s Technical Authority (Technical Education And Skills Development Authority or TESDA) before departing. Though training is not required, most migrants choose to participate to prepare both for the skills assessment and for life overseas. Training is rigorous, requiring participants in TESDA- accredited domestic service programs to complete at least 218 credit hours and master a set of “core competencies” that includes cleaning rooms, washing and ironing clothes, and preparing hot and cold meals. (In collaboration with ILO and Fair Training Center, TESDA recently launched a pilot hybrid-learning program that shortens the training period for the Domestic Work certificate to 12 days.) However, despite intensive skills training, many migrant domestic workers struggle with the experience of living and working abroad. Between 30 and 40% of first-time Philippine domestic worker placements overseas are terminated or break their employment contract in just the first few months. Without a job, migrant workers become even more vulnerable, pressured to quickly find another job or leave the country.
In addition, training costs money– a lot of money. Excessive fees force many migrants into debt before they are ever introduced to a recruitment agency. OneTESDA-accredited training school for domestic workers going abroad, charges $368 in tuition and another $10 for the test. The average monthly income in the Philippines is about $290. Though migrants pay these fees for the chance to work abroad and earn higher wages, debt is not something that is easily overcome, especially for migrant workers. Separated from home and community, migrants often struggle under the weight of perpetual debt, a struggle that puts them at greater risk of exploitation.
As part of its mission to ensure safer migration for overseas domestic workers, FEF opened Fair Training Center in Manila in late 2016. Built from the same commitment to ethical recruitment, the Center provides a more comprehensive curriculum for overseas workers, one that takes into account employer expectations and local or country-specific conditions. While training helps overseas workers hone technical skills such as cooking and cleaning, it also supports development of soft skills such as communication and professionalism. Migrants are educated on their rights and receive training and advice, not only on how to cope with the challenges of living overseas, but on how to thrive as migrant workers in a foreign country. From the 30%-40% termination rate, Fair Training Center boasts dramatically reduced rates of early termination. Less than 10% of overseas domestic workers trained at the center are terminated or break their contracts in the first three months of employment. The UN’s International Labor Organization refers to FEF’s program as “the gold standard for pre-migration training.”
Investing in Solutions that are Replicable and Scalable
In 2019, Malaysia’s first ethical recruitment agency opened its doors. With access to resources and networks developed under the GFEMS-FEF partnership and under the mentorship of FEF’s CEO, Zenna Law and Elaine Sim founded Pinkcollar to help domestic workers migrate to Malaysia safely and debt-free. With this support, Law says, “Pinkcollar launched its services with a tried-and-tested recruitment strategy that we felt confident with.”
Pinkcollar exemplifies perfectly what binds GFEMS and FEF together: a commitment to solutions that are replicable and scaleable, solutions that will ultimately uproot the systems that enable modern slavery.
“We see supporting emerging ethical players in the recruitment industry as the next step to broadening our impact,” asserts FEF’s CEO. With more agencies pursuing ethical recruitment models, new industries and markets will be reached much more efficiently, and we will “achieve our aim of ending forced labour of migrant workers.”
Ethical Recruitment: An End-to-End Solution
While the Fair Training Center helps migrants avoid training fees and provides more comprehensive training, it is only one piece of FEF’s ethical recruitment model. Migrant workers confront the threat of exploitation at nearly every step in the migration process. It may begin at the point of training, but it lingers throughout the process of recruitment and placement as agencies in both the Philippines and Hong Kong exploit migrant workers by charging exorbitant fees.
To address the issue at the site of origin, FEF partnered with Staffhouse, one of the largest recruitment agencies in the Philippines and one similarly committed to ethical recruitment and zero-fee charging. As Staffhouse has ranked as the Top Deploying Agency for skilled workers by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) for three consecutive years, FEF is confident this new partnership will be transformational for the entire industry in the Philippines.
At the destination site, FEF already operates Fair Employment Agency (FEA), an ethical placement agency. With an emphasis on full transparency and matching the right employee with the right employer, FEA has built a reputation as one of the region’s most trustworthy recruiting sources. In 2020, FEA placed its 4000th domestic worker, helping these migrant workers collectively avoid an estimated US $7.5 million in recruitment debt.
With GFEMS support, FEF was able to scale up its recruitment services. Additional investments in staff and resources needed to interview and place workers, process visas, engage with employers, and monitor placements enabled FEA to safely place hundreds more migrant workers. By 2021, FEA achieved its 5000th placement. Half of these placements have been Filipino domestic workers. None have been charged a fee.
Every year, millions of workers leave their homes for better opportunities abroad. However, the circumstances that push migrant workers out are often the ones that make them most susceptible to exploitation and abuse: poverty, low wages, low-skill, and general lack of economic opportunity. Our investment in FEF and its ethical recruitment model has helped thousands of Filipino workers forge successful migration paths. It is a model that is replicable and scalable (see sidebar) and one that has the potential, not only to disrupt business-as-usual practices that harm migrant workers, but to really begin to change systems that enable modern slavery.
To learn more about FEF, please visit https://www.fairgroup.org/.
Programs referenced in this article are funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.