Improving Migrant Workers’ Access to Justice: UNSW Law Academic awarded Open Society Fellowship | Law

Improving Migrant Workers’ Access to Justice: UNSW Law Academic awarded Open Society Fellowship

UNSW Law Senior Lecturer Bassina Farbenblum has been awarded a prestigious Open Society Immigration Initiative Fellowship to continue her work on migrant workers’ access to justice in South and South East Asia.  Over the past two years, Bassina has led the world’s first major international study of migrant workers’ access to remedies in their home country, for abuses during recruitment before departure and while they are working abroad.  The study focuses on the millions of low-wage migrant workers who go from Indonesia and Nepal to the Middle East. The book-length report Migrant Workers Access to Justice at Home: Indonesia was launched in Jakarta in October 2013 by the head of Indonesia’s presidential agency on labour migration and members of Indonesia’s parliament. In June 2014, Bassina and her colleagues will launch in Kathmandu a similar report on migrant workers’ access to justice in Nepal.

Labour migration issues are among the most pressing challenges for many developing countries in Asia and around the world.  In the past twenty years, global low-wage labour migration has increased exponentially. In 2013, migrant workers from developing countries sent home an estimated $414 billion dollars from work in industries such as construction, agriculture, fisheries, manufacturing and service, and from domestic work and care-giving. Low-wage migrant workers in the Middle East suffer particularly high levels of abuse and exploitation. Routine abuses include unpaid wages, unsafe work conditions, inadequate rest, inhumane housing conditions, work fundamentally different to what was promised, the employers’ confiscation of the worker’s identity documents, or in some cases, confinement to the home, physical or sexual abuse and debt bondage, often called modern-day slavery.

When migrant workers’ rights are violated, their access to remedies in local courts or other institutions in the destination country is extremely limited. To the extent that they can access justice at all, they depend on help from their consulates abroad, or access to remedies on their return home. In fact, many of the harms workers experience abroad can be linked to lack of transparency and accountability in the privatised recruitment process before departure in their home country. Many common harms, such as wages or work conditions different to what was promised by recruitment agencies in the worker’s home country, are often violations of the contract signed between workers and recruitment agencies, and recruitment agencies are legally liable for compensating workers.

Bassina’s study, undertaken with research partners at the University of Pennsylvania as well as local researchers in Indonesia and Nepal, is the first to comprehensively evaluate migrant workers’ access to justice at home.   The first report, on Indonesia, identifies the legal responsibilities of the government and the private recruitment sector.  It then analyses the mechanisms through which migrant workers may access justice in Indonesia or through its embassies, and the systemic barriers that prevent most workers from receiving full redress for harms that they suffer before, during, and after their work abroad.  The report finds that private Indonesian recruiters and insurers are rarely held responsible for rights breaches, and makes detailed recommendations to government, civil society and other stakeholders to improve migrant workers’ access to justice and accountability of the recruitment industry. The study was supported in part by the Open Society Foundations and Tifa Foundation (Indonesia) and is available online in English and Bahasa Indonesia.

The UNSW Human Rights Clinic has also undertaken several related clinical project to advance migrant worker protection in the region, including providing an advice to Indonesian civil society organisations and members of parliament on Indonesia’s obligations under the recently-ratified Migrant Workers’ Convention,  and drafting a manual for Indonesian civil society organisations on how to assist migrant workers to claim insurance for contract violations or other injuries or abuse during migration.

Improving Migrant Workers’ Access to Justice: UNSW Law Academic awarded Open Society Fellowship