Making Migration to Malaysia Safer

Project Selamat

Migrant workers are a critical labor source for global supply chains yet also a highly vulnerable population. A significant share of forced labor victims are migrants. Malaysia is highly representative of this global situation. It is a major hub for supply chains across many sectors and hosts ~2 million migrant workers, not counting a possibly larger informal migrant population. It has an estimated ~200k modern slavery victims (GSI). There are no good estimates specific to international migrant workers in Malaysia, but practical experience suggests high rates.

With the generous support of, GFEMS is helping address the exploitation of migrants in Malaysia. Selamat is the Malay word for “safe,” and the first word in the phrase for “welcome” – selamat datang. For Project Selamat, the overall, long-term vision for success is to live up to that word by creating an environment that is safe and welcoming for migrant workers in Malaysia. Safe and welcoming means migrants are able to work free from forced labor and can have a migration experience that is productive and beneficial for them and their families. We’re getting there by seeding ethical recruitment and equipping travelers with the tools they need to avoid, recognize, or report exploitation.

Supporting the First Ethical Recruitment Agency in Malaysia

GFEMS is funding Malaysia’s first ethical recruitment agency, Pinkcollar, in order to expand its operations. Pinkcollar has a long track record helping domestic workers in Malaysia operate safely and legally. Between its founding in 2019 and the start of Selamat in 2022, Pinkcollar placed and support 180 domestic workers, saving them an estimated $70,000 in exploitative recruitment debt. Under Project Selamat, Pinkcollar is expand in two directions: to providing services directly in a new labor-sending country, Indonesia, and addressing a new sector, Malaysia’s growing manufacturing industries. The Fund’s support will help Pinkcollar accelerate their growth and increase their operating capacity for both domestic work and manufacturing recruitment.

Bringing SafeStep to a Malaysia

Since 2020, GFEMS has been supporting a consortium of partners ELEVATE, Diginex, and Winrock develop SafeStep: an app that helps Bangladeshi workers migrate safely. A lack of information is a major factor in how people who have migrated fall into forced labor so often. They aren’t sure what their rights are in their destination country, what they should expect from an employer (or what they should be protected from), or what it should cost, among other things. SafeStep offers country-specific educational digital content, a budget calculator, digital documentation storage, and help center functions, which collectively address numerous migrant challenges. Crucially, it was developed with deep input from actual migrant wokers. In our initial funding rounds, we helped build out the app for use in migration to Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Under Selamat, ELEVATE and its partners are tailoring the app to Malaysia and building in additional features that will help SafeStep meet the needs of employers and migrants alike.



Building a Comprehensive International Migration System in Indian Source Communities

Forced labor and risky migration are part of a larger cycle of exploitation that stems from consumer demands for cheap goods; private business desire for rapidly mobilized and low-cost workers; weak labor and immigration laws in source and destination countries; and the socioeconomic status of workers. This brief presents key learnings to improve financial stability and foster safer migration for Indian migrant workers throughout their journey to and from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The research focuses on program activities funded by GFEMS to mitigate source-side vulnerabilities through better social and legal protection at the individual, family, and community levels.

Safe migration means support for migrants at every stage of migration.

Protecting Bangladeshi Migrant Workers in International Labor Migration Systems

Despite Bangladesh’s global status as a major labor-sending country, the overseas labor recruitment and reintegration systems do not adequately safeguard in-service and returning migrant workers. While migration is spurred by conditions of poverty and a lack of job opportunities at home, migrants often lack knowledge and access to safe migration channels. Many are unaware of the real costs of migration or unable to pay what a dalal or middleman demands. Taking on debt to finance migration puts migrant workers at risk of forced labor or exploitation.

Moreover, workers who return are often coping with trauma from mental or physical abuse. Many struggle to reintegrate within their families and/or communities. Despite the need for wrap-around care, reintegration services in Bangladesh are fragmented, focusing primarily on economic reintegration. Perceptions of “failed migration” hinder social reintegration, especially for female returnees.

To reduce the prevalence of forced labor among Bangladeshi migrants (to the Gulf region as the majority of the Bangladeshi migrant workers are received by Gulf Cooperation Council countries), GFEMS, with support from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), funded the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), and partners Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP) and Caritas Bangladesh (CB) to implement the “Recovery and Reintegration Support for Bangladeshi Returnee Migrant Workers” project.  Together, they provided direct repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration services to Bangladeshi migrants and survivors including shelter, airport pickup, psychosocial counseling, medical support, legal, as well as economic and livelihood services. They also provided assistance to key government and civil society actors providing repatriation and recovery support. 

This brief outlines key learnings from this project and includes recommendations for key stakeholders to strengthen international labor migration systems in Bangladesh and better protect workers through each stage of the migration journey.

For more, download the full brief.

Debt increases risk. Improving financial stability can reduce risk and lead to safer migration.

The Role of Debt in the Lives of International Labor Migrants and Families from India

India has the largest emigrant population in the world with 18 million people living abroad. A large percentage of India’s international labor migrants reside in the GCC countries (28% in 2020.)

Migration to the GCC countries from India is typically temporary and is characterized by the predominance of unskilled laborers. Though frequently pursued as a pathway to improved economic condition, international migration is a costly venture, and it is a cost that is primarily born by migrants rather than employers. Very often, migration is financed by debt.

There are large gaps in evidence on how indebtedness shapes migration decision-making, work-related choices and experiences, remittance-sending behavior, and experiences upon return to India. As part of an effort to fill this gap and generate new and actionable learnings, GFEMS funded Population Council to conduct research on patterns of household indebtedness among international migrant households; the role of debt in migration-related decisions; and what interventions hold the most potential for reducing financial vulnerabilities.

The brief concludes with recommendations to various stakeholders including the national and local level government of India as well as donors and civil society organizations (CSOs) committed to reducing exploitative migration and labor practices.

To learn more, download the brief.

In a complex and exploitative industry, micro-contractors can play a critical role to protect workers.

Tackling Labor Exploitation in the Construction Sector in India

India’s construction industry is complex, multi-tiered, and marked by a high degree of informality. While developers and large contracting companies exist at the top tier, it is most often “micro-contractors,” or employers of small teams of construction workers (less than 50 workers), who are the first point of contact for migrant workers. Click below to learn more about micro-contractors and the critical role they can play to end modern slavery in India’s construction industry.

GFEMS recently commissioned research to better understand the nature of the labor supply chain in India’s construction sector and the relationships between its key actors. Finding that micro-contractors are a critical entry point for interventions to reduce exploitation and protect workers, this brief concludes with recommendations to improve working conditions and reduce vulnerabilities for migrant workers in India’s construction industry, particularly through more support for micro-contractors.

Pressure to improve treatment of migrant workers has mounted for a decade. What matters now is what comes next.

Calls for Reform, but What Happens After the World Cup?

In the coming weeks, hundreds of thousands of fans from across the globe will converge on Qatar. Donning team colors and filled with fiery anticipation, they will flood the stands of Qatar’s newly-constructed stadiums, ready to cheer their favorite team to World Cup victory. While the chance to glimpse a favorite player will be enough for some, others will shell out close to $35,000 for a hospitality ticket and a more luxurious viewing experience.

Who will be missing from these crowds are thousands of migrant workers who labored over the past decade to prepare Qatar to host such a grand event. Whether by death or deportation, they have been removed from Qatar and the World Cup experience they helped create.

On the eve of the World Cup, accusations of exploitation grow louder, but they are not new

For full quotation and more on migrant workers’ experiences in Qatar, see

Controversy has swelled around Qatar’s World Cup since it was selected to host the epic football tournament way back in 2010. It began with charges of bribery and corruption on how Qatar won the bid in the first place. Since then, much attention has been paid to Qatar’s record on human rights, and especially its treatment of migrant workers.

Qatar has undertaken the largest infrastructure project in World Cup history (by far). Its estimated to have spent more than 200 billion getting ready for the event. Qatar is a small country, both in size and in population, so to meet the labor demand for such a huge project, Qatar has had to rely on hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. Most of these migrants are from Asia and Africa.

Headlines of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar are more prominent in recent weeks as the World Cup officially kicks off this month. But the accusations are not new. Indeed, they have been swirling for over a decade, and growing louder each year. Recruiters are accused of charging illegal and often exorbitant recruitment fees. Large construction firms have been charged with nonpayment or underpayment of wages; forcing work in extreme heat; overwork; violating health and safety standards; workplace violence, and even death.

Last year, The Guardian released a report that more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar since it won the World Cup bid 10 years ago. An in-depth analysis of work-related deaths and injuries in Qatar by the International Labour Organization (ILO) reported that 50 workers lost their lives in 2020 and just over 500 were severely injured (most by falls from heights, road traffic accidents, and falling objects on worksites.) Nearly 38,000 suffered mild to moderate injuries.

Labor reforms lack force to really make a difference for migrant workers

The outcry has been enough to pressure a response from Qatar. Since 2017, the government has passed a number of labor reforms. For example, as part of a public effort to dismantle the kafala system (the sponsorship system that ties a migrant worker to his or her employer), workers are able to move jobs or leave the country without a current employer’s consent. They are entitled to a newly-established minimum wage, and an online platform now functions to receive worker complaints.  But, as many workers’ rights orgs and human rights groups argue, these reforms have not done much to improve conditions for migrant workers.

Amnesty International has maintained a countdown of sorts for the last five years to track Qatar’s progress towards ending migrant worker abuse. One year out, Amnesty’s annual “reality check” report concluded “the government has failed to rigorously implement the reforms, in particular by monitoring their enforcement and holding abusers to account… [throwing] into doubt the pledge by key stakeholders that the World Cup would be a game changer for migrant workers in Qatar.”, a GCC-based advocacy organization working to advance the rights of migrant workers since 2007, continues to share stories of abuse and exploitation as told by migrant workers. Their voices, though stifled by threats of detention or deportation, prove that Qatar still has a long way to go to ensure its workers are treated with dignity and fairness.

What happens after the World Cup?

So then, what happens after a champion is crowned and the crowds go home? Workers will continue to migrate to Qatar, just as they did before the World Cup bid was won. But, almost certainly, the world’s spotlight on Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers will dim.  

Qatar’s response to international pressure may not have brought about the sea change of reform that the world is calling for, but a decade of scrutiny and criticism has forced Qatar to take some critical first steps. Whether these first steps will lead to more meaningful progress is yet to be determined, but continuing to hold Qatar to account can help sway the outcome.

When the tournament ends on December 18, Qatar will find itself at a fork in the road.  Propelled by the momentum of the last 10 years, Qatar can choose to respect migrant voices, hold employers to account and enforce and strengthen protections for migrant workers. It can choose to be a human rights champion for all of the Middle East.

The Global Fund, in partnership with NORC at the University of Chicago, recently conducted a study to measure the prevalence of forced labor among Kenyan migrant workers returning from GCC countries. Findings showed that 1,007 out of 1,020 respondents reported experiencing conditions consistent with forced labor- nearly 99%.The research team concluded that “although employment-based abuses are not uncommon among migrant workers from developing countries, such high rates of forced labor violations are truly rare, if not unprecedented in current prevalence estimation research, and call for massive as well as systemic efforts to address the situation.” Key among the team’s recommendations was the abolishment of the kafala system.

For more recommendations, read the brief.

Understanding what works- and what doesn’t- is how we make progress in ending modern slavery.

Lessons Learned from Inaugural Programs

In 2018, the Global Fund launched its first projects, with the support of the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. This inaugural portfolio focused on sex trafficking in India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, forced labor in India’s construction industry, and exploitation and abuse of overseas migrant workers in the Philippines and Vietnam.

This report is a reflection on key lessons the Global Fund learned over four years of research, programming, adaptation, and partnership. Looking back on what these projects achieved and where they fell short, taking the time to examine learnings, both anticipated and unanticipated – these are necessary steps to make real and sustainable progress towards ending modern slavery.

Domestic workers are at risk of forced labor, but evidence shows ethical recruitment can lessen it.

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.

Evidence shows that placement through ethical recruitment channels has a protective effect.

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
personal safety.

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.

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