Migrant workers

"We are the people at the lowest level of society"

Romanians picking onions in Spalding; Indians building hotel complexes in Dubai; Chinese migrant workers making sandals in Schenzen factories; Mexicans toiling in Californian tomato fields: all are part of an estimated 95 million people worldwide who have travelled far from home to find work.

Many countries rely on migrant workers to help them plug their labour shortfalls, while migrants' remittances provide a vital source of finance and foreign exchange for households and governments in their countries of origin.

But the life of a migrant worker is often a harsh and isolated one.

Cut off from their loved ones and support networks; often unaware of local laws, languages and customs; and frequently denied the same rights as national workers, migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

This often starts before they've even left home. In many poor countries, unscrupulous and unregulated agencies target the vulnerable and unemployed, tricking them into taking out huge loans to cover their fees for arranging travel and placing them in work.

But once in their host country, for far too many migrant workers, hopes of building a better life for their families soon fade when they realise that they must plough the majority of their wages into loan repayments. This leaves them scant money to survive on, let alone to save up for the future.

Migrant workers are also known to be much more likely than national workers to end up in what are often known as the ‘3D' (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) jobs, such as construction, mining or the sex industry. In the EU, twice as many migrant workers die or are injured at work than national workers.

In some countries, national law prohibits migrant workers from joining trade unions, so they can't organise themselves to bargain collectively for better pay and conditions.

Discrimination in pay, employment status and promotion is common.

Most vulnerable of all are those workers who are undocumented or working illegally, too fearful of being reported to the immigration authorities to complain about their conditions.

ILO definitions

Migrant worker
A person who migrates or who has migrated from one country to another with a view to being employed other than on his own account.

Bonded labour
A system whereby people are required to repay a debt by working for their creditors.

Trafficking in persons, trafficking of labour
Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

Need for a joined-up approach

Retailers and brands can do plenty to start tackling the issues of migrant workers in their supply chains. Their starting point must be to map where migrant workers are likely be employed in their supply chains, and then to work with suppliers to establish systems to protect their rights.

But the abuse of migrant workers across the globe is a systemic problem which requires systemic solutions.

We are exploring opportunities for driving forward collaborative work on this issue. For example, we are in dialogue with the Institute for Human Rights and Business and the International Business Leaders Forum to explore how companies can work collectively and in collaboration with government and civil society to identify solutions in their own supply chains, and to influence global policy.

The scale of the issue

  • 200 million people live outside their country of birth or citizenship
  • 1 in 10 Chinese people work away from their home towns
  • 95 million working people live outside their country of origin
  • 10% of the EU workforce were born elsewhere
  • 25-50% of the workforce in Switzerland were born elsewhere
  • 60-80% of the workforce in the Gulf states were born elsewhere

Find out more

Migration Linkages (a BSR initiative)