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Protecting migrant workers’ rights




The Korea Time

Place published

South Korea

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By Shyam Paliwal

Labor exploitation and human trafficking link the worlds of human rights and commerce. The abuse and manipulation of migrant workers around the world has been clearly documented.

With 86 million migrant workers traveling around the world supporting national and international economic engines, migrant workers are essential for economic growth, but face high personal costs. Migrant workers generally live in poorer areas of the world with limited ability to fact-check the claims of labor recruiters. Many migrate based on rumors and have no real access to accurate reputations of the company for whom they may work, the unions or other civil society organizations they may interact with, or even the quality of service providers, such as hostels, upon which they may depend.

Migrant workers around the world suffer due to this information gap.

Additionally, the accountability of these employers is limited, as transparency is severely lacking in the global labor market. These migrants often face multiple disadvantages caused by illegal and unfair practices in the labor supply chain: inhumane work environments; illegal labor recruiter practices; bribes and other hidden salary deductions, creating widespread debt bondage; and a lack of enforcement of fundamental labor rights.

The good news is that several new approaches ― non-profits, start-ups, and even simple Facebook groups ― are looking to change all of this.

Innovative non-profits, such as the Not For Sale Campaign, and the Call & Response movements in the U.S., are producing innovative mobile applications to give consumers a better view of the labor policies of the companies that make their products ― the product's "labor footprint ― right at the point of sale. Each of these companies has an iPhone application, and more mobile applications like these are produced every day.

I have personal knowledge of a Facebook group dedicated to connecting seafaring officers that has been instrumental in reconnecting shipwrecked sailors with their families, in the face of indifferent shipping employers.

I also recently heard about a start-up company, LaborVoices, based in India, which is taking a different approach. The folks at LaborVoices are trying to eliminate labor abuses through labor market transparency. They are trying to gather useful information from migrant workers themselves and help them share that information effectively. LaborVoices helps workers fact check prospective employment conditions. Hopefully, these facts will help them to make more informed labor migration choices, including whether, where, and how to migrate.

How would these approaches work in Korea?

Since Korean consumers aren't that picky about labor issues ― yet ― perhaps the mobile app ideas like the "labor footprint" wouldn't work immediately. The signs are encouraging, though, that these apps in the U.S. and Europe will help drive more scrutiny of these abuses. Direct connection of Web-savvy workers, like the Facebook group I mentioned, could be more helpful to stopping labor abuses here. However, Web-based solutions still won't help the millions of foreign migrants we have here, already, since they don't have access to the Internet.

If and when LaborVoices establishes operations in Korea, any worker, Korean or foreign, could call the local LaborVoices number and simply record a question that they might ask another worker, in their own language (Chinese, Vietnamese, Bangladeshi, etc.). They might ask: ``Where are the best construction jobs in Seoul?” This question would be answered by another worker in the same language. Once another user records an answer, the original worker is automatically called back on their mobile phone, and the question and answer are both played for them. LaborVoices gathers these questions and answers from workers in various languages into a centralized system.

LaborVoices converts those questions, answers, and comments to form the reputations of employers and factories. Employers with good wages and working conditions will be rewarded with many eager workers, and workers will be able to find the best jobs. Migrant workers will be able to access this information when it matters most, in their home country, before they migrate. As the demand for unskilled labor in developing countries rises, the need for groups to take these innovative approaches is mounting.

According to Amnesty International, South Korea was the first country in Asia to protect the rights of migrant workers by law, but the implementation hasn’t kept pace. We all recognize the skills and contributions of migrant workers to the economic framework of South Korea and other host countries. Even international brands need inexpensive, accurate, real-time monitoring of supply chains, to effectively manage risks posed by irresponsible suppliers.

Third parties, from NGOs to unions to professional labor inspectors, each can only satisfy a few of these criteria at a time. Brands need access to the collective intelligence of workers, themselves, to identify crises before they happen, and encourage good suppliers. As international brands demand more and more transparency from suppliers, Korea stands to gain significantly ― but only if we take an active role in welcoming these new methods of avoiding labor abuses.

Shyam Paliwal is an international investor and an economic advisor. He now resides in Haeundae, Busan. He can be reached at shyampali@gmail.com.


Economic sectors

General relevance - all sectors

Content types

Policy analysis and Support initiatives

Target groups

Policymakers, Public awareness, Employers, agencies and their representatives, Researchers, Unions, and NGOs/community groups/solidarity networks

Geographical focuses

South Korea

Spheres of activity

Law and Social work