Imagine that you had a family to feed and moving abroad was your only option to earn a decent wage — but you didn’t know where or how to find work overseas. Or imagine that your daughter works abroad but that you haven’t had any word from her for months and months.
Or ask yourself what you’d do if you were injured at work a long way from home, with a hospital bill you couldn’t afford and an employer who refused to pay you as much as you’d agreed.
Where would you turn for help?
Many of you reading this would go to a friend, family member or a trusted government office. But millions of migrants across the Asia Pacific region have a much harder time finding assistance. Recognizing this gap, the ILO has set up some 23 Migrant Worker Resource Centres (MRCs) in six Southeast Asian countries.
One of the most effective ways to combat widely recognized abuses (including underpayment of wages, confiscation of passports, substandard working conditions, and confinement in the workplace) is to ensure that migrant workers are equipped with knowledge and strategies to safeguard their labour and human rights.
MRC staff are counselors, confidants and community leaders who encourage and enable migrant workers to understand and assert their rights while minimizing their exposure to widespread exploitative practices.
“Before I came to this centre, I didn’t know that my new employer was not allowed to keep my passport. It was only during counselling that this was made clear to me.”
When exploitation can’t be avoided or has already been suffered, MRCs can help migrant workers obtain access to justice. MRCs serve as ad hoc complaints departments, linking migrant workers with legal-aid service providers or official channels for lodging complaints. The MRCs are integrated into government-run employment service centres and are also run by trade unions and NGOs. They have different focuses, in terms of gender and nationality or ethnicity, sectors of work, and type of interventions.
In just four years, MRCs funded by the ILO’s GMS Triangle Project, have already benefitted over 50,000 migrant workers. Through MRC referrals and legal assistance, migrant workers have been awarded around USD$ 1.2 million in compensation.
Now, MRCs are beginning to evolve beyond legal and counseling services to become trusted community centres. For example, one MRC in Cambodia received the family of a rape victim who was looking for assistance. While that’s not the core focus of MRCs, it shows what happens when a service gains the trust of community and can adapt to local it needs—it becomes a first-stop for anyone seeking help.
MRCs are also beginning to yield some long-term outcomes. Almost 90 per cent of sample of clients at Cambodian and Vietnamese MRCs who migrated through legal channels said that counseling from MRC staff influenced their decision not to migrate through irregular channels—hence reducing their risk of being exploited.
MRC services are also clearly linked to better protection and knowledge of rights for potential migrant workers. One beneficiary who was interviewed after receiving counselling at the Bac Ninh MRC in Viet Nam said: “Before I came to this centre, I didn’t know that my new employer was not allowed to keep my passport. It was only during counselling that this was made clear to me.”
MRCs also play a secondary function: revealing trends in the types of abuses faced by migrants as well as laws which aren’t being adequately enforced.
This information provides invaluable evidence in advocating for improved laws, policies and programmes.
To further the reach of the MRCs, the ILO has published an MRC Operations Manual in several languages as a resource for any organisation wanting to establish support services for migrant workers.
In the future, the ILO envisages MRCs growing into social and community hubs, enabling peer-to-peer learning, and providing important services including document storage and free Skype to the families of those who are working abroad. Regular contact via MRC resources and networks can ensure that we know something has gone wrong as soon as it goes wrong. And if it does, the MRC is there to help.