The impact of COVID-19 on apparel workers in Bangladesh has been devastating, but the pandemic did not create worker vulnerabilities.

COVID Revealed Just How Vulnerable Apparel Workers Are. Now What Do We Do About It?

Bangladesh has long been an epicenter for apparel production.  Its garment industry is the second-largest in the world, behind only China. It accounts for about 84% of Bangladesh’s export revenue, and readymade garments account for almost 16% of the country’s GDP. It is home to some 4,000 factories and employs more than 4 million people. 4 out of five of these workers are women

The cost of labor in Bangladesh apparel factories remains low, among the lowest by global standards. The Bangladeshi government raised the minimum wage for garment workers to 8,000 Tk or $95 USD per month in December 2018, the first increase in 5 years. In response, in January 2019, protestors took to the streets. Workers claimed the increase did not reflect the rising costs of living, and questioned how they were to sustain families and households on poverty wages.

Image Courtesy of UN Women

Then, in 2020, a global pandemic hit.

At least $3 billion of orders were cancelled. More than 1 million workers- mostly women- were laid off or furloughed, representing a quarter of the workforce. Overseas apparel sales fell 18%. Recent data shows that fashion owes $16 billion in outstanding payments.

The numbers are stark, but what’s behind the numbers is even starker.  For those working in Bangladesh’s apparel factories, especially those laboring in the informal economy to produce the “made in Bangladesh” tag, these numbers mean a very grim reality.

They mean that millions living on the margins were suddenly without an income. Most had little or no savings. And many were denied the legally mandated severance benefits to provide any cushion. Workers like Mr. Ali, a knit operator for 17 years owed over $4,000 USD in severance pay, hold out hope that “the money will come” but are so desperate to feed their families that they have contemplated suicide.

They mean that there are more children- school age boys and girls, some not yet 10 years old- in Bangladesh’s apparel factories, working to keep their families afloat. 

COVID-19 is not the root cause of vulnerability but it has shown the world just how vulnerable apparel workers are.

They mean that expecting mothers and older workers are being terminated first because employers do not want to or cannot pay the benefits to which they are entitled.

They mean workers are putting up with more abuse in the workplace because they fear losing their jobs and their only source of income. Women workers, in particular, are reporting increased sexual harassment and verbal abuse.

They mean that, in some of the most vulnerable communities, 95% of households have less than a week of food supplies, and barely 3% are receiving any government aid. Mothers who work long days at the factory are undernourished, going without so that their children can eat.

The impact of COVID-19 on apparel workers in Bangladesh has been devastating, but the pandemic did not create worker vulnerabilities.  Those laboring on the factory floor, under exploitative conditions for up to 12 hours a day, do so because they have few other employment options. They are often young, unskilled, and frequently women and migrants. They are vulnerable to forced labor due to poverty, the fragmented, informal nature of textile supply chains, and the lack of enforcement of legal protections for workers. COVID-19 is not the root cause of vulnerability, but it has shown the world just how vulnerable apparel workers are.

Informal Factories Operate in the Shadows, Leaving Workers Vulnerable

Image courtesy of Trades Union Congress

Since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, when more than 1,100 people died in a garment factory collapse, labor standards have improved, at least in Bangladesh’s formal factories. Evidence shows better working conditions, more factory inspections and greater accountability. But, for those working in informal factories, the risks of exploitation remain high.

The informal economy is characterized by one central feature: it is unregulated by the institutions of society, in a legal and social environment in which similar activities are regulated.” In other words, there is little government or corporate oversight, meaning factory owners often have limited awareness or knowledge about labor laws; they operate with little consequence for violating laws and little support to improve working conditions.

Some of the worst labor practices are clustered in the informal economy. Informality is associated with lower and less regular incomes, inadequate and unsafe working conditions, extreme job precarity and exclusion from social security schemes, among other factors. A recent study estimates that as many as 3 million Bangladesh workers producing ready-made garments (RMGs) fall outside the scope of any labor monitoring programs.

Worker Survey Gives Voice to Hidden Workers

To give voice to these invisible workers and increase transparency in the RMG sector, we partnered with ELEVATE to deploy a worker survey in Keraniganj and Narayanganj, two of Bangladesh’s key informal apparel production hubs. A relatively low-tech tool, the survey does not require a respondent to be literate or even own a smartphone. Rather, workers anonymously answer a series of multiple-choice questions by pressing a number on their mobile phone’s keypad using voice response technology. During the weeks after responding to the survey, workers then received a series of informational/educational messages informing them of their rights. In instances where child labor or risk of forced labor was identified, referral operators followed-up to link workers to support services such as skills building activities and/or education. While giving voice to a hidden population, this project not only identified exploitation in informal apparel factories, but supported workers to remove from exploitative conditions.

The Results:

The results of the worker survey revealed high rates of child labor –higher than expected and much higher compared to the formal sector. Poverty, exacerbated by the pandemic, pushed most children into factory jobs. Nearly 9 out of 10 working children reported migrating to the cities for work in the informal sector to be able to support their families’ income. Most of these children live in the nearby slums within walking distance of their workplace. Most had never attended school or were forced to drop out. Children are especially vulnerable to exploitation. Anecdotal evidence shows that employers prefer to engage children because they are more easily convinced to work longer hours for less money. Many children are unaware of their rights and thus less likely to protest when those rights are violated.

Bangladesh Labor Foundation School
School for Child Labor facilitated by Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF). Photo courtesy of BLF.
LEEDO school for children from apparel factories, Bangladesh
Mobile school for child laborers facilitated by LEEDO. Photo courtesy of ELEVATE.

What to do with these findings? With the Fund’s support, ELEVATE partnered with three local organizations to provide educational and support services to identified victims of child labor. Each of these three organizations- Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF), LEEDO, and Community Participation and Development (CPD) – have experience in these two high-risk areas and in implementing educational programs. Each adapted their curriculum and program offerings in response to student needs. 

BLF, for example, amended its traditional curriculum to include Bangla language, mathematics, and English, as these were the courses that young workers most requested. CPD, focused on building technical and vocational skills, enabled students to select a program based on their needs and interest. While some preferred to hone skills relevant to the garment industry, others, especially the younger students, were most interested in learning generic trades to improve their future employability and personal self-development. LEEDO, an organization that runs informal schools for street children, primarily targeted children under the age of 14, complementing their curriculum with recreational activities such as Carom Board, Ludo, and gaming

Of the children who attended these schools, some have left the factory. They have returned to their villages and enrolled in school. Yeasin*, just 9 years old when his father’s injury forced him to quit school and start working, found time to attend one of BLF’s programs in between work shifts. Finding Yeasin eager to exit the factory and continue studying, BLF reached out to his father. Yeasin returned to his family and is now enrolled in the government school in his village.

Other children have moved on to better jobs or better wages. 14-year old Joshin* left school to work in a garment factory after COVID-19 pushed his family into financial crisis. For his labor, he was provided three meals a day, but no wages. After studying English, Bengali, and mathematics as a student in LEEDO’s School under the Sky program- courses that helped him excel in his daily work- Joshin found work in another factory. In his new position, Joshin earns wages that are helping support his family. He expects to earn a promotion soon.

Education is only part of the solution. Reducing vulnerability means changing systems

Educational programs and skills training play an important role in providing children an alternative to working in informal factories, but they are not the solution. Nor is any one program. To ensure children are kept out of factories, we need to address whole systems. This means engaging governments to legislate and enforce labor reform; engaging businesses to change exploitative labor practices; raising awareness to prevent child exploitation; enhancing access to social protection benefits to build financial security; and creating sustainable livelihood options so that mothers, fathers, boys, and girls are not forced into exploitative working conditions.  

The Global Fund supports numerous projects to reduce forced and child labor in Bangladesh’s informal factories. In addition to the worker voice survey and the educational programs that resulted, we support research to identify gaps in existing legislation and we recommend specific actions for policy and law enforcement groups, government officials, and brand representatives to take to end forced labor. We invest in the development of innovative tools to help brands, buyers, and suppliers prevent, detect, and remediate forced labor in their operations. The Fair Capacity Platform, for example, helps businesses plan their production capacity better, reducing the probability that they resort to subcontracting or excessive overtime to meet unrealistic order deadlines. 

The garment industry is a central pillar of the Bangladesh economy, and so are the millions of men, women, and children who sustain it. The outbreak of a global pandemic showed the world just how vulnerable these workers are, especially those laboring in the informal sector. It also reinforced our commitment to reducing that vulnerability. 

If you are interested in partnering with us to end forced and child labor in the apparel sector, please reach out.

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect identities. The legal age of employment in Bangladesh is 14.

Apparel I Bangladesh

Lessons Learned

During follow-up, many children said they couldn’t afford to quit their jobs, or even reduce their workload to participate in the educational programs being offered, despite expressing interest. For some children, engaging in part-time learning could compromise the source of income that their families depend on. Based on findings from the worker voice survey and real-time feedback from children whom the survey engaged, ELEVATE developed the following guidance for governments, donors, civil society, or private sector actors:

  • Efforts to provide education or remediation services to working children must assume that children will not or cannot immediately leave their jobs and should accommodate their work schedules (e.g. by offering part-time courses)
  • Educational and support services should offer income-replacement stipends or allowances and provision of social safety net services to convince children and their families to enroll in the programs, and eventually transition into the mainstream education system.
  • Referral services should target working children as well as their families. Lack of awareness regarding the negative effects of child labor contributes to decisions that put children in factories.
  • Programs aimed at reducing child labor should engage other actors such as factory owners, trade union leaders, and the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment to eliminate child labor.

For many migrants, returning home can bring new trauma.

The Long Return: Supporting Reintegration for Returning Migrants in Bangladesh

Farishta* was sick and bleeding when she arrived at the recruitment agency. She had been dropped there only after her illness had become severe enough that her employers worried she might not survive. Concerned about their own futures, the couple that had exploited and abused Farishta as a domestic worker in their home for the last six months finally returned her to the same recruitment agency in Saudi Arabia that had placed her. But, after a day, the agency delivered Farishta to the police. Claiming she was in the country illegally, the police held Farishta for another eight days, and for another eight days, she was denied medical attention. Farishta was told she could go home if she could quickly arrange the cost of a ticket back to Bangladesh. From the police station, Farishta contacted her husband who was able to borrow BDT 40,000 (USD $471) to bring Farishta home. It seemed her harrowing experience was coming to an end.

However, when Farishta returned to Bangladesh her struggle continued. She was shunned by her family, her oldest son refusing to call her mother. While coping with the emotional trauma of rejection, Farishta’s physical health continued to deteriorate. Still bleeding and growing weaker every day, Farishta borrowed money to see a gynecologist who advised surgery and medication. Farishta could afford neither. Though she had escaped abuse and exploitation at the hands of her overseas employer, the trauma Farishta experienced and continued to endure after returning home was overwhelming. She had thoughts of taking her own life.

Struggling to reintegrate into her family and community, Farishta was introduced to Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a community-based migrant workers’ organization in Bangladesh.

With OKUP’s support, Farishta began to heal physically and mentally.

She received needed medical treatment and psycho-social counseling. At the same time, OKUP provided counseling to Farishta’s family to help them understand her trauma and to engage them in supporting Farishta’s recovery. Farishta’s relationship with her family has improved and she is reconnecting with her eldest son.

Family support was critical for Farishta’s recovery and reintegration, but Farishta also needed a sustainable livelihood for herself and her family. After excelling in OKUP’s life skills training course, she was referred to a partner organization, Caritas Bangladesh, for assistance to start a small business. Farishta is now raising ducks and chickens, selling eggs to earn money for her family. She has plans to acquire more animals and to remain at home in Bangladesh.

Though her migration experience was one of pain and exploitation, Farishta found a way forward with the support of OKUP and others working to strengthen reintegration support for returning migrants. While providing necessary psychosocial and livelihood support to survivors like Farishta, OKUP is working with a consortium of GFEMS-funded partners to raise community awareness of the challenges returnees face and to advocate improvements in government services and response. Together, we are supporting returnees to sustainably reintegrate and reforming systems to better serve survivors and vulnerable migrants. Farishta, while still managing her own trauma, has begun working with other returnees in her community to help them recover and thrive.

The Challenges of Return

Remittances are the lifeblood of millions of families in Bangladesh. In 2019, remittances sent via formal channels topped $18.3 billion USD- or 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. For families of overseas workers, this money accounts for 85 percent of daily expenditures; sixty percent of these families are totally dependent on remittances for their daily expenses. Multiple family members often rely on the wages of a single migrant worker, creating pressure on migrant workers to “succeed” abroad.

The expectation that migration will improve a family’s financial situation often shapes a migrant’s return experience. Those who return with no money or savings are commonly viewed as “failed” migrants and are ostracized by communities and even families. For the women and men who are deceived, exploited, and abused as overseas workers, rejection at home only adds to the trauma and isolation experienced abroad. Women especially are shunned by communities and family members for sexual abuse they endured, either real or perceived. According to a recent report by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, 52% of more than 300 female returnees interviewed felt there was “a change of social attitude” towards them after their return. Many reported that they had become common targets for gossip; that they experienced an increase in judgmental attitudes towards them upon return; and that they were regularly subjected to derogatory remarks from community members. Significantly, none of the interviewees made any formal complaints to any authority regarding their treatment. The outbreak of a global pandemic in early 2020 only increased the social stigma surrounding returnees as they were now branded carriers of COVID-19. Without improved systems and services to provide returning migrants needed psychosocial and livelihoods support, many will again turn abroad and to the same unsafe channels of migration.

Afsari’s Story

Confronting extreme financial hardship at home, Afsari made the decision to seek work abroad after hearing she could earn a decent wage. Afsari endured 15 months of exploitation and abuse before she was able to earn enough to pay off the debt of BDT 160,000 (approximately $1,890 USD) owed to a labor recruiter. Afsari returned home, but without the wages she had been promised and now under the weight of new trauma. She was introduced to Caritas where she completed tailoring training, began teaching tailoring classes, and received seed money to begin her own tailoring business. Afsari now earns enough to cover her family’s daily needs, including schooling for her daughter, and is saving for her future.

Supporting Sustainable Reintegration

According to IOM, “reintegration can be considered sustainable when returnees have reached levels of economic self-sufficiency, social stability within their communities, and psychosocial well-being that allow them to cope with (re)migration drivers.” When sustainable reintegration is achieved, future decisions about migration become a matter of choice, rather than necessity. This is what we are working to achieve with our partners in Bangladesh. Supported by funding from the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) is leading a project with OKUP and Caritas Bangladesh to provide short- and long-term support for survivors and vulnerable migrants and advocate for strengthened government response and reintegration programs.

Working together, CAFOD, OKUP, and Caritas Bangladesh are able to provide holistic services to returnees and vulnerable migrants, ensuring migrants can access needed support from the moment they return to that when they no longer need it. With an understanding that migrants have different migration experiences and different needs upon return, partners in the consortium leverage their unique strengths and networks to provide each returnee tailored yet comprehensive support.

Recovery and Reintegration Begins the Moment a Migrant Returns

OKUP provides short-term emergency service for returnees, including airport pick up and shelter services. In the worst of scenarios, OKUP coordinate airport transfers of bodies to the families of the migrant worker; they also support families to apply to the government to pay for the funeral costs. In addition, OKUP aids with medical referrals and applications for government health grants that can pay a migrant’s medical costs. They provide psychosocial counseling to returnees and their families, and, in instances of severe trauma, OKUP extends long-term counseling support.

Beyond emergency support, OKUP have established community-led groups of returnee migrant workers known as migrant forums and facilitates their regular meetings to provide information to returnees and vulnerable migrants on relevant matters including how to access loans and other financial support. During one recent meeting, more than 200 migrants were supported to access government benefits- a vital lifeline as the pandemic continues to shake financial security.

Sustainable Reintegration Must Engage the Community

OKUP also engages the community to support reintegration efforts. Through outreach and awareness-raising activities, OKUP is helping communities understand the unique challenges migrants confront and working to reduce the social stigma that attaches to them upon return. With more than a decade of experience supporting returnees and vulnerable migrants, OKUP understands the significance of community engagement, and employs traditional and non-traditional methods, including theatrical performance, to build these networks of support. For example, in an OKUP-sponsored play about a woman’s migration journey and her abuse overseas, the focus is on her return and the importance of community support. These efforts are reaching thousands; in just one quarter, OKUP’s outreach activities engaged over 17,000 individuals across 8 high-migration districts.

Sustainable Reintegration Must Include Livelihoods Support

Building on OKUP’s sustainable reintegration efforts, Caritas Bangladesh provides skills and entrepreneurship training to prepare survivors and vulnerable migrants for sustainable employment. Participants are able to self-select their economic reintegration activities, selecting a business track that draws on their own skills and interests. With agency to determine their own futures, survivors and returnee migrants can choose employment opportunities that meet their own needs, increasing the likelihood of success and sustainability.
To date, Caritas Bangladesh has supported over 600 individuals to start their own small businesses. After completing entrepreneurship training and courses covering subjects such as business principles, trade licensing, and accounting, graduates are supported to develop small business plans before Caritas Bangladesh transfers seed money to help them push these ideas forward. Caritas Bangladesh currently supports survivors and vulnerable migrants across nearly 50 different vocations, from animal husbandry to tailoring to auto work.

It is admirable to see the Government of Bangladesh is committed to improving reintegration services for migrant workers.

— Richard Sloman, CAFOD

Sustainable Reintegration Must be Supported by Government

While supporting individual returnees to reintegrate, the consortium is also advocating local and state government to strengthen referral systems. OKUP is coordinating with the Wage Earners’ Welfare Board to strengthen referral services from the airport to ensure returnees in need of support are identified and referred for services. Though COVID has imposed new challenges, diverting government resources and capacity, progress is being made. OKUP reports that new cases are starting to be referred. Building on these advocacy efforts, CAFOD, in collaboration with a team of research consultants, recently published a report identifying gaps in the current referral system. The report includes several recommendations and is being used as an advocacy tool for the government to strengthen referral systems. The consortium remains steadfast in its advocacy efforts and continues to press relevant officials to take action. In 2022, the consortium will be hosting a series of referral guideline workshops with government Ministry officials to discuss findings from the referral research.

“It is admirable to see the Government of Bangladesh is committed to improving reintegration services for migrant workers. These workshops provide an excellent opportunity to develop a strong, holistic and inclusive referral mechanism which will dramatically improve the support returnee migrants, particularly survivors of abuse and exploitation, receive when they return to Bangladesh.”
Richard Sloman (CAFOD)

While CAFOD, OKUP, and Caritas Bangladesh are providing critical support to vulnerable individuals and communities, their partnership is what is transforming systems and creating sustainable change. Sharing knowledge, building partner capacity, and providing comprehensive and holistic care, they are supporting returnees through recovery and reintegration. Working together, they are changing the systems that enable modern slavery to thrive.

*Some names in this blog have been changed to protect identities.

Trauma-informed care is critical to the wellbeing of survivors of trafficking.

From Repatriation to Reintegration: Centering Survivors to Effect Systemic Change

Every year, approximately 50,000 girls and women are trafficked to India across Bangladesh’s western border. In India, they are forced to labor, sold into prostitution, or trafficked out to be exploited and abused in another country. Around 500,000 Bangladeshi women and children from 12-30 years old have been illegally trafficked to India in the last decade.

Despite a common understanding of the problem, efforts to eradicate trafficking and repatriate victims of modern slavery are failing thousands of women and girls. Communities in Bangladesh’s Khulna Division have proven especially vulnerable to trafficking. Situated at the border with India, Khulna Division is already a high-risk community with overpopulation, extreme poverty, and remoteness of location exacerbating these risks. Criminals are only emboldened by extremely low conviction rates for trafficking cases. Even when trafficking victims are identified in India, they languish in shelter homes for years before they are able to return home. 

When survivors return to Bangladesh, they remain susceptible to re-trafficking. They are often ostracized by their communities or burdened with a social stigma that hinders recovery and reintegration efforts. These challenges, combined with a lack of employment and educational opportunities, leave survivors vulnerable to further exploitation. In a recent study, our implementing partner in Bangladesh found that 30% of the survivors they currently support had been trafficked multiple times before.

As has been seen across the globe, COVID-19 takes its heaviest toll on those who are the most vulnerable. In Bangladesh’s Khulna Division, there has been no exception. According to the US State Department’s most recent TIP Report, increasingly widespread job loss, wage cuts, and poverty in Bangladesh’s rural areas and urban slums due to the pandemic has forced some children into begging and commercial sex. In 2020, NGOs in Bangladesh reported traffickers lured victims with promises of “COVID-19 free” locations.

Justice and Care, an international nonprofit, has been supporting survivors, pursuing justice, and securing at-risk communities for over a decade. In partnership with GFEMS, Justice and Care is implementing programming in Bangladesh’s Khulna Division to provide trauma-informed and survivor-centric care, train border guards and law enforcement officials to identify and respond to cases of human trafficking, and build the capacity of government and aftercare service providers. In other words, we are working together to provide end-to-end support for survivors and to change the systems that enable human trafficking. 

A holistic care model

Trafficking can take many forms and not all individuals experience trauma the same way. While working with governments and institutions to prevent further traumatization through timely and survivor-centric repatriations, Justice and Care remains focused on the individuals that experience trafficking and exploitation.  When possible, the same caseworker that is introduced to a survivor in an Indian shelter supports and guides a survivor through repatriation and reintegration in Bangladesh. This individualized pairing helps establish trust between survivor and caseworker and supports a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of a survivor’s needs.  In Bangladesh, a survivor is provided immediate shelter and psycho-social counseling while survivor and caseworker together draw up a longer-term individualized care plan. 

Justice and Care have helped me in more ways than I can count. My family got grocery when we did not have any food during the lockdown, and I am also getting support in pursuing a case against my trafficker.

— Survivor participant

Reforming systems to achieve sustainable change

With survivors at the center of all of their programming, Justice and Care works with various stakeholder groups to ensure a coordinated and survivor-centric response to trafficking. Having piloted a successful initiative to train border guards on victim identification and care before partnering with GFEMS, GFEMS support enabled an expansion of this program. Over the last 12 months, more than 200 staff from Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) have been trained to identify, intercept, and refer victims of trafficking. As a result, 40 individuals have been intercepted and identified as victims by the BGB at the border and referred to Justice and Care.

Programming does not just target law enforcement, however. Justice and Care works to build the capacities of government stakeholders as well as aftercare service providers on both sides of the border.  Supporting survivors even before their return to Bangladesh, Justice and Care is committed to reforming a repatriation process that can strand a survivor in an Indian shelter for up to six years.  Victims of trafficking in India, when fortunate enough to escape exploitation and abuse, find that escape is just the first step in a long journey home. A complex and bureaucratic system prolongs the process as judges require survivors to stay in country until testimony is given or Bangladeshi officials stall in confirming a survivor is a Bangladeshi citizen. Survivors must gain approvals from police, border officials, social workers, and local and federal officials before they can be repatriated.

Survivors must be a voice in determining survivor care.

Their individual stories may differ, but survivors share a lived-experience of surviving a certain type of trauma and abuse that is essential to the development of effective trauma-informed survivor care programs. In partnership with GFEMS, Justice and Care conducted a Caregivers’ Empowered training session to prepare survivors for mentorship and counseling roles.
Since October 2020, these champion survivors have conducted mentoring sessions with 44 survivors. While providing information on services and care activities for newly repatriated victims, they also assess peers’ mental and physical health and work to address any challenges that survivors are confronting. In follow-ups with participants, “the recipient survivors reported that they felt the peer mentors had understood their problems perceptively, listened attentively and demonstrated empathy- that they felt better emotionally as a result of the session and all asked for ongoing sessions.”

India and Bangladesh have taken steps to speed up the repatriation process, but survivors still wait 18 to 22 months to return home.  With an understanding of the traumatic effects of a prolonged shelter stay, Justice and Care is taking steps to expedite return and ensure survivors are repatriated within 12 months. They have forged partnerships with government officials, government-run institutions, and aftercare providers in India and Bangladesh.

Furthermore, they have convened bilateral repatriation stakeholders including Bangladeshi and Indian Rescue, Recovery, Repatriation, and Integration Task Forces to sensitize them to victim-centric and trauma-informed practices, including timely repatriations. They continue to advocate with the Ministry of Home Affairs to push through the adoption of the Standard Operating Procedures to shorten the timeline for repatriations, enhance cross-border coordination, and center survivors in the process. After a recent meeting with the Bangladeshi Ministry of Home Affairs and U.S. government officials, Justice and Care was invited to provide input into a training manual being developed by the US Department of Justice for law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh. Currently working with 44 referral partners in India including the Rescue, Recovery, Repatriation and Integration Task Force in Pune and West Bengal, UNODC, and the Department of Women and Child Development, Justice and Care is building a network of support that centers survivors from the point of first contact. In strengthening local capacities, they are also ensuring that that support is sustainable and scalable beyond program end. 

This spring, Justice and Care hosted a special event for survivors. “Season of Wingspread” brought together 34 survivors to share their experiences and to recognize and celebrate what each had achieved towards stable recovery and reintegration. Until systems change and recovery and reintegration support is no longer needed, Justice and Care remains a model of care to replicate.

SafeStep: Using tech to enable safe recruitment for migrant workers in Bangladesh

SafeStep: Using tech to enable safe recruitment for migrant workers in Bangladesh

As a part of its partnership with the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), GFEMS is partnering with ELEVATE to develop and pilot SafeStep, a mobile application to provide workers with tools to make informed decisions about migration. The first iteration of the application, which is now live on the Google Play App Store, is designed for Bangladeshi workers considering migrating to work in Gulf Cooperation Council countries. ELEVATE is developing SafeStep in consortium with Diginex Solutions and Winrock International.

SafeStep Budget Calculator.png

The project represents another investment in the Fund’s ethical recruitment portfolio and will focus on increasing the supply of ethically recruited migrants and migrant labor. After an extensive research and scoping period to understand the key drivers of exploitation among Bangladeshi migrant workers, GFEMS identified several opportunities with high potential for impact and replication. The development of SafeStep meets one of those key needs for migrant workers: high-quality support throughout the migration process. By coupling informational and educational content with actionable tools, SafeStep will empower workers to successfully and safely navigate their migration journey, with an emphasis on minimizing worker-paid fees and other avenues for exploitation.

SafeStep’s end-to-end support begins before a worker decides to migrate, with a budget calculator and educational content. These tools help migrants understand the potential cost of relocating for a job and provide accessible information on what to expect during the recruitment process. Support continues after a worker decides to travel, with a blockchain-enabled tool for migrants to upload and store documents like contracts, visas, and receipts for any fees paid. Finally, the app includes a help center where workers can report and receive support on issues or concerns in their migration process.

SafeStep- Migration Checklist.png

ELEVATE and its consortium partners centered design of the application on input from stakeholders, including migrants, sub-agents, and employers. Several cycles of user feedback will inform subsequent iterations of the app. Ultimately, SafeStep is designed to serve as a digital backbone for safe migration solutions, with potential to accommodate new features and functionality. SafeStep is initially focused on the migration corridor between Bangladesh and the Gulf, with built-in flexibility to adapt to other key migration corridors.

GFEMS looks forward to the ongoing partnership with ELEVATE, Diginex, and Winrock and to sharing learnings from early usage of this first-of-its-kind platform in Bangladesh. Learn more about the FCDO partnership, the Fund’s portfolio, and scoping research.

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Focused on sustainability, GFEMS launches seven new projects in India and Bangladesh

Focused on sustainability, GFEMS launches seven new projects in India and Bangladesh

GFEMS is proud to share the launch of a new portfolio of interventions and innovations with our partner, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO). The portfolio is expected to total approximately 9M USD. 

The FCDO portfolio represents deepening investments in India and Bangladesh, following the inaugural GFEMS portfolio launch in late 2018, and two additional launches with Norad and the US State Dept. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons earlier this year. 

Originally scheduled to launch in spring 2020, all of the projects in this portfolio have been adapted to reflect and respond to new needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Working with our partners on the ground, these projects are now better designed to mitigate exacerbated vulnerability, adjust to remote environments, and contribute to responsible recovery. 

“The FCDO portfolio reflects thoughtful, nuanced, and deliberate action to disrupt modern slavery.”

— Helen Taylor, Director of Programs

Prior to project launch, GFEMS engaged in extensive scoping and design phases to identify the geographies and sectors with the highest potential for impact. The portfolio, designed based on the findings from that efforts, addresses the following opportunities: 

  • Overseas Labor Recruitment in Bangladesh 
  • Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) in India
  • Forced Labor in the Apparel Sectors in India and Bangladesh. 

GFEMS is funding a total of seven projects across these opportunities:

  • IJM– Strengthening Systems to Protect CSEC Victims and Sustain Freedom in Maharashtra
  • Seefar– Empowering Children, Families and Communities to End Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children
  • BRAC– Reducing Forced labor in Informal Ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh with Sustainable Livelihood Opportunities
  • SAI– Improving Buyer-Supplier Engagement, Purchasing Practices, and Capacity/Production Planning India’s Informal Ready-Made Garment Supply Chains
  • ELEVATE– Safestep: A Responsible Recruitment Platform for Safe Migration in Bangladesh
  • ELEVATE- Laborlink: Disrupting the Prevalence of Forced/Bonded Labor in Bangladesh Informal Ready-Made Garments
  • ELEVATE- Developing Predictive Analytics Tools to Disrupt Forced and Bonded Labor in India’s Informal Ready-Made Garments 

Projects within the portfolio address the key pillars of the Fund’s intervention framework– supply, demand, and enabling environment of modern slavery. They address core challenges that prevent sustainable reduction in prevalence. 

Project Objectives Align with the GFEMS Intervention Framework.png

Sustainability is a key theme across the projects, and across the Fund’s wider investment portfolio. GFEMS designs programs and strategies for future investments with sustainability in mind. Funding focuses on both projects with high potential for replication and scale,  and those that leverage both national priorities and market demands. All projects are informed by, and tailored to, the populations GFEMS seeks to serve. Within the FCDO partnership, GFEMS specifically targets sustainable changes in supply chain practices, project sustainability through increased government and private sector engagement, and sustainable livelihoods for survivors. 

“The FCDO portfolio reflects thoughtful, nuanced, and deliberate action to disrupt modern slavery. The Fund worked closely with partners to develop holistic programming that is based on the best available evidence, but also flexible enough to respond to evolving needs in the field. We are excited to launch these programs with our incredible partners and grateful for the support of FCDO,” said GFEMS Director of Grant Programs, Helen Taylor.

GFEMS will share more information about the portfolio, projects, and our implementing partners in the following weeks. We look forward to sharing the impact, successes, and lessons learned from this portfolio. 

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World Day Against Trafficking Roundup: What leaders are saying

World Day Against Trafficking Roundup: What leaders are saying

Today, World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, GFEMS is sharing insights from global anti-trafficking leaders with our global community. We asked a series of leaders to answer one of the following three questions:

  1. What does the World Day Against TIP mean to you? What do you hope to see accomplished?
  2. 2020 has been a year unlike any other. Why is this year’s day against TIP especially important?
  3. How should people at home recognize the World Day Against TIP? What are some appropriate and effective actions to support the cause?

Here’s what they had to say:


“In a year of acute financial distress with regards to incomes in rural India, the Day against TIP takes on additional importance, as it’s a call for action to support endeavours that can mitigate these risks and save futures for the most vulnerable. “


“The Knoble is a growing network of fraud, cyber, fintech, and financial crime professionals with a passion for protecting vulnerable populations, particularly those at risk for human trafficking.  We proudly partner with and support the organizations and individuals who act as first responders. We join them in envisioning a world where no one can profit off the suffering of other human beings, and we seek to create system-wide networks to disrupt the illicit flow of money through the world’s financial systems.”


“The pandemic that began in 2020 will have short, medium and long term impacts on the problem of human trafficking and modern slavery. This year’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons is an opportunity to highlight the resilience and efforts of the anti-trafficking community as it works to mitigate the new and increased risks for victims, survivors and vulnerable populations created by COVID-19. The community’s many new ways of working during this pandemic will lead to policy and practice innovations that, longer-term, will mean great leaps forward in our shared goal of ending trafficking and slavery.” 


“I hope to see a continuation, if not an escalation, in global conversations about modern slavery amid and beyond this pandemic. I wish to see a stronger push towards technology-driven tools to combat slavery similar to the newly-launched Integrated Case Management System that we have in the Philippines. And, finally, I hope that States will ensure the safety, rights, and protection of migrants around the world especially of foreign domestic workers.”


“As lockdowns were imposed around the world, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has placed an enormous strain on already highly vulnerable communities. The resulting economic fallout has placed people who are at high risk of exploitation even more at risk. Families will be forced to take ever more desperate decisions, high-interest loans and risky job offers. There is no question that the pandemic and the economic crisis it has caused will lead to an increase in trafficking. This year it will be critical for all organisations that work to combat slavery and trafficking to adjust their longer-term programs to this new reality.”


“There are increasing concerns that the economic cost imposed on the world due to COVID and the lockdowns could exacerbate vulnerabilities in the most marginalized sections of society. And this can have outsized consequences on the safety and security of children – they might become easier targets for traffickers preying on the economic desperation of families who have lost their livelihoods or taken loans they can’t pay back. This is why in 2020, TIP is more critical than ever, to remind us that there are invisible victims of this pandemic that go beyond the obvious, and our focus on them needs to be redoubled.”


“Discuss the issue at home and recognise the scale of the problem, with tens of millions of people suffering in forced labour. Secondly, look out for and report suspicious activity that might be linked to modern slavery and trafficking. Thirdly, dig into your favourite brands and see how they do regarding forced labour and mapping their supply chains. If a company scores badly – consider using the huge power of your wallet to support companies who are doing more to deal with this issue.”


“For me, the World Day Against TIP is a reminder that we have a lot more work ahead of us to accomplish our goals of eradicating modern slavery.  I hope that this day becomes an annual day of remembrance for those lost to modern slavery and for the atrocities of the past. We have to end all forms of modern slavery. Until we do, I hope the day is one of many motivations for us, as a global community, to work tirelessly towards every individual’s access to freedom.”


“COVID-19 has exacerbated the risk of debt-induced trafficking for the economically vulnerable and marginalised populations across the globe. This year’s World Day Against TIP highlights the much-required collaboration between society, governments, private sector, NGOs, philanthropies, and media to ensure that every individual lives a dignified life that is free of trafficking and exploitation. It is essential that empathy and equity be the guiding values so that a brighter future can be envisaged in the new normal.”


“Traffickers make $150 billion each year from the forced labour of their victims. That forced labour makes things for the supply chains of companies we invest in through stock markets and pension funds, and the profits go into the banking system. So ask yourself, your bank, your broker or your retirement asset manager: Are we unwittingly funding human trafficking?”


“It is fitting to see that in 2020 the UN will focus on ‘first responders to human trafficking’ to recognize the frontline folks who counsel, provide support, help victims to access remedy, and help survivors to heal, to re-gain confidence and to re-integrate sustainably over the long term. It is amazing to witness the dedication of those assisting victims during this time of COVID-19 to overcome challenging restrictions. While it is tragic that almost 17 million have been directly and millions more indirectly affected by COVID, it is heartening during these dark times to see how people do their part against the odds.”


“World Day always reminds me how much more needs to be done to protect everyone, everywhere, from human trafficking. This year, many migrants have been hit hard by COVID-19, and many more will become vulnerable to exploitation as the economic consequences of the pandemic unfold. While most migrants will continue to show extraordinary resilience, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that nobody is left behind.”


“This is a day to renew our commitment to global coordination and to rededicate ourselves to creating a coherent global strategy that includes governments, businesses, the financial sector, NGOs, and civil society in a way that brings the full force of the world down on traffickers to end this crime once and for all. Let’s forge partnerships, collaborate openly, share results freely, and knit together a real anti-slavery movement. We at the Fund are in this fight with you!”

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Navigating Repatriation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Bangladeshi Survivors with Justice and Care

Navigating Repatriation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Bangladeshi Survivors with Justice and Care

In collaboration with the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), GFEMS has partnered with Justice and Care to address commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) of Bangladeshi women trafficked into India. 

The project operates in the Khulna and Dhaka Divisions of Bangladesh, where women and families are extremely vulnerable to trafficking. Many are trafficked across the border into India, but receive intermittent or disjointed access to services while going through the repatriation process due to their foreign nationality. Justice and Care, which was established to focus on CSE and has worked extensively in India and Bangladesh, will provide expertise on navigating the Indian migration and justice systems in repatriating Bangladeshi victims.

Working collaboratively, the GFEMS-Justice and Care project is addressing these issues through four primary activities: 

  • Mapping the bureaucratic process of repatriation of victims from India to Bangladesh, working to improve efficiencies in the process and reduce overall time to bring survivors home. 
  • Working with NGO providers in India to ensure coordinated trauma-informed services for survivors, minimizing disruptions to the care plan and providing support throughout the repatriation process. Upon return to Bangladesh, Justice and Care will continue providing wraparound rehabilitation and reintegration services, supporting survivors on their path to self-sufficiency. 
  • Training service providers in the local Bangladesh community to support survivors after repatriation using trauma-informed systems and care. 
  • Working with extremely vulnerable families in the Khulna and Dhaka Divisions to prevent re-trafficking and provide alternatives for women considering risky migration. 

The activities within this project align closely with the Fund’s approach to ending modern slavery. On the supply side, the project works with vulnerable families to reduce risk of trafficking due to financial shocks and provide adequate rehabilitation so that victims are not re-trafficked. To address the enabling environment, GFEMS is working with communities to accept survivors of trafficking and to combat the social stigma that can lead to victims being cast out of their communities, forcing a return to CSE due to lack of other options and support. 

Along with other projects under the Norad partnership, GFEMS aims to gain significant learnings from this project, including the effectiveness of various rehabilitation techniques and services, an understanding of repatriation from India to Bangladesh, effectiveness of reintegration services, and more details on CSE rehabilitation in the Bangladeshi context. 

GFEMS looks forward to sharing the successes and lessons learned from our work with Justice and Care. Learn more about the Norad partnership and the GFEMS portfolio.

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Systemic Improvement in Survivor Care: Supporting and advancing survivor rehabilitation and reintegration in Bangladesh

Systemic Improvement in Survivor Care: Supporting and advancing survivor rehabilitation and reintegration in Bangladesh

With support from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), GFEMS is partnering with the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) in a new project providing recovery and reintegration services to survivors of forced labor, returned migrants, and additional vulnerable populations in Bangladesh. 

CAFOD is a leading, UK-based agency with over thirty years of experience working collaboratively in Bangladesh with local partners. Together with Caritas Bangladesh (CB) and Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), CAFOD will provide immediate and long-term support to vulnerable and returned migrants and survivors of abuse and exploitation. The project will focus on reintegration support efforts in some of the highest labor-sending districts of Bangladesh.

GFEMS invests in projects that disrupt the supply of vulnerable populations and works with stakeholders to combat exploitation. To further this objective, the project will:

  • Work closely with the Government of Bangladesh to strengthen survivor reintegration services and referral pathways. 
  • Address the social and economic challenges that vulnerable migrants and survivors experience. Through community engagement activities, the project will cultivate systemic advancements in reintegration support and survivor services, resulting in improvements to the current reintegration, recovery, and referral system in Bangladesh.
  • Provide trauma-informed psychosocial and physical care to returnee migrants immediately upon returning to Bangladesh. CAFOD, Caritas Bangladesh, and OKUP will work together to refer victims and their families to support services and tools for recovery and reintegration. Further supporting returnees and vulnerable migrants in livelihood placement, CB will conduct skills assessments and develop plans for use of these skills to secure employment. With this approach to distributing resources and care, the consortium will provide holistic, needs-based support to survivors and vulnerable migrants. 
  • Support and advance the current referral system by improving cross-government coordination, delivery of and access to Government-provided services through engagement activities, such as reintegration, recovery, and restitution services. 

GFEMS is excited to support the development of an improved system of survivor care for returned migrants in Bangladesh. By taking a needs-based approach to service delivery of healthcare, counseling, shelter, and legal support, this project ensures that survivors receive services that directly meet their needs.

GFEMS looks forward to sharing learnings from the progress of this project, and from working with CAFOD and its consortia partners, in enhancing reintegration support in Bangladesh. Learn more about the Norad partnership and the GFEMS portfolio.

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With Norad, GFEMS launches six new projects

With Norad, GFEMS launches six new projects

GFEMS is proud to launch a new portfolio of interventions and innovations with funding from the Norwegian Agency for Development Corporation (Norad). The portfolio represents a 5.7M USD investment in programming, with additional programming to be added later this year, and will support recovery, reintegration, and rehabilitation of survivors, as well as build safer migration systems for migrants seeking work abroad, their families, and their communities in India and Bangladesh. GFEMS is funding six projects across these focus areas, in partnership with five local, regional, and international organizations. Projects in the Norad portfolio represent an investment in evidence-based, inclusive, and sustainable interventions.

This portfolio marks a new round of in-region projects for GFEMS, following the inaugural portfolio launch in late 2018. The portfolio projects have high potential to reduce vulnerability to trafficking and re-trafficking, informed by an extensive scoping and design phase that included research into structural drivers of modern slavery, vulnerability analyses of target populations, and industry analysis in priority sectors and geographies.

GFEMS and its partners designed the portfolio to address the Fund’s strategic priorities in Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and Ethical Recruitment. Specifically, the projects test new models of ethical recruitment and support growth of existing promising models for survivor care.

GFEMS views modern slavery through an economic lens as a systemic problem driven by traffickers’ exploitation of people for profit: a consistent supply of vulnerable individuals and demand for cheap goods and services. For example, within ethical recruitment, the Fund is lowering the supply of vulnerable workers by providing support to aspiring migrant laborers and making tools for the recruitment journey more accessible, and decreasing the demand for slavery by creating incentives for ethical labor over exploitive recruitment practices. Similarly, within CSE, the Fund is working to reduce the supply of vulnerable individuals through provision of trauma informed care, economic empowerment, and reintegration services. h The Fund ensures that all stakeholders, including the private sector, work together to address modern slavery and the systems on which it relies.

Projects within the portfolio address two key thematic areas of the Fund’s approach– supply of vulnerable individuals and demand for cheap goods and services– and address challenges that prevent sustainable reduction and system-wide change in modern slavery.
Projects within the portfolio address two key thematic areas of the Fund’s approach– supply of vulnerable individuals and demand for cheap goods and services– and address challenges that prevent sustainable reduction and system-wide change in modern slavery.

Sustainability is a key priority across the projects and across the Fund’s wider portfolio. GFEMS identifies projects that leverage national priorities and meet market demands, both indicators of high potential for replication and scale. Projects provide vulnerable populations and survivors with the skills and resources they need to live safe and full lives. Within the Norad partnership, GFEMS specifically seeks to support sustainable change in the recruitment industry and provide sustainable livelihoods for survivors of modern slavery. 

In the coming weeks, GFEMS is excited to share more information about the projects and partners in this portfolio. The Fund looks forward to sharing the successes and lessons learned as the projects move forward.

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