Financial Security Means Safer Migration: Reducing Vulnerabilities Among Migrant Workers in India’s Construction Industry
In December 2020, an operator for the Jan Sahas helpline answered a call from a man claiming that his brother and six other workers were being held in inhumane conditions and against their will at a construction site in Faribadad. The man reported what his brother had told him- that since arriving, the migrants had received no pay for their work.
The Jan Sahas team responded immediately. They reached out to the local police and District Collector (DC) of Faridabad and an investigation was launched. Quickly after arriving at the site, the inspector was able to confirm the veracity of the claim: the workers had indeed been denied wages; none had even enough money to leave the site. An application to the DC filed on behalf of the migrants resulted in an order for restitution against the employers. They were forced to pay Rs. 1,16,340 (about $1,600 USD) in back wages to the workers they had defrauded and another Rs. 9000 (about $125 USD) to cover their transportation home. The network that Jan Sahas, together with GFEMS, set up to monitor and respond to cases of forced labor had worked. The man who had made that initial call to the helpline was reunited with his brother and the other migrants recovered what they had earned.
The network that Jan Sahas, together with GFEMS, set up to monitor and respond to cases of forced labor had worked. The man who had made that initial call to the helpline was reunited with his brother and the other migrants recovered what they had earned.
The helpline is an essential component of Jan Sahas’ strategy to reduce forced labor in India’s construction industry, but it is only one part of more comprehensive programming. While providing support to those encountering situations of forced labor, Jan Sahas is committed to changing the systems that create vulnerabilities in the first place. In partnership with GFEMS, Jan Sahas developed programming to assess risk factors for forced labor among India’s migrant workers to better mitigate those risks; to raise awareness and ensure access to government entitlements to help migrants build a stronger safety net; and, in partnership with Pratham and Sambhav Foundation, to train employers on ethical labor practices to create safer and better work experiences. These collective efforts have made a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of migrants and their families. Many thousands more are less likely to experience forced labor or exploitation because of the efforts of Jan Sahas and our partners on the ground.
India’s construction sector
Nearly 40% of India’s population or 450 million people are internal migrants. (This reality was made clear to the world last year when news outlets broadcast the mass exodus that followed the state-issued lockdown.) India’s construction industry is the country’s second largest employer and attracts a large number of migrant workers each year. Approximately thirty to fifty million of India’s construction workers are internal migrants.
While construction work offers an opportunity to earn additional income, especially during the agricultural off-season, evidence indicates that 10 percent or more of migrant construction workers – potentially five million people- could be in forced labor. Various factors are contributing to this high rate.
Despite an unprecedented contraction of India’s construction industry in the first half of 2020 in response to COVID-19, the sector has made a strong recovery (despite another recent outbreak), and remains one of the fastest growing construction markets in the world. This, combined with a severe shortage of skilled labor and an abundance of informal recruitment brokers and middlemen eager to fill this labor gap, has significantly enhanced migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation.
Jan Sahas: Promoting safe migration and worker protection
Jan Sahas targeted the 450 kilometer migration corridor stretching from Bundelkhand to Delhi. Of the estimated two million migrants who travel this route annually, early prevalence estimations show a rate of forced labor between 7.5 and 10%.
Building a safety net to reduce forced labor risks
For many migrant workers who live in a perpetual state of transit, it is difficult to access government entitlements. Though many are simply unaware of what benefits they are entitled to, others lack the formal documents needed to access these benefits. To overcome both of these challenges, Jan Sahas implemented programming to raise awareness of social welfare entitlements among migrant workers and to help migrants navigate complex government structures and processes.
Before pursuing entitlements, Jan Sahas organized a series of awareness-raising community meetings to educate workers on existing benefit schemes and criteria for enrollment. Despite early skepticism from workers who had participated in surveys before but never received promised benefits, the Jan Sahas team worked to gain worker trust and helped thousands register for entitlements including food rations, pensions, and those offered specifically to construction workers under India’s Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW).
Registering for entitlements can be cumbersome. In some localities, workers must present in-person at labor department offices to access benefits, which often means taking off work. BOCW cards require proof of work in the same location for 90 days, a requirement that many migrant workers are unable to meet. Others simply do not have the formal documentation needed for a successful application.
To help overcome some of these obstacles, Jan Sahas guided migrant workers through the application process, clarifying more technical language and assisting in the preparation or collection of required documents. During the project period, Jan Sahas helped over 27,000 workers and their families access direct cash or cash-equivalent benefits. While follow-up interviews with workers revealed that most would not have known about entitlements or how to access them without Jan Sahas’ intervention, these entitlements provide a safety net for workers, allowing them greater agency to choose when and where they will work.
Jan Sahas helped over 27,000 workers and their families access direct cash or cash-equivalent benefits. Follow-up interviews with migrant workers revealed that most would not have known about entitlements or how to access them without Jan Sahas’ intervention.
Beyond entitlements, awareness-raising campaigns introduced migrant workers to Jan Sahas’ toll-free helpline. The helpline is an outlet for workers to file grievances, report instances of forced labor or inhumane treatment, seek redress for lost wages, and access legal support services. In an expression of gratitude for the establishment of a helpline, a worker in Delhi reported that he “lost between INR 10,000-15,000 ($134-200 USD) of wage payments before a helpline was operational.”
Supporting Migrant Workers during COVID-19
When COVID-19 struck in spring 2020 and India entered lockdown, the response from Jan Sahas and other implementing partners was immediate. As the true impact of the pandemic began to show in job losses and rising unemployment, the Indian government increased entitlement allotments and issued new benefits to help mitigate the worst effects. Jan Sahas, with a tracking and communication system already in place, intensified its outreach efforts to ensure migrant workers, a group left even more vulnerable by the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns, could access needed support. A migrant from Faridabad whom Jan Sahas had helped register for government entitlements captured the dire reality for many migrant workers during COVID: “Without ration or cash transfers, we would not have survived the challenges of COVID-19.”
In addition, Jan Sahas was able to utilize the existing programmatic framework to identify and provide food relief to over 1,000 of the most vulnerable migrant households.
Gathering data to assess risk factors and improve programming
Foundational to Jan Sahas’ programming was the development and implementation of a longitudinal migration tracking (LMT) system. This system is designed to capture data on migrant workers to better understand risk factors for forced labor, paying particular attention to whether program interventions decreased the likelihood of exploitation.
To build a strong evidence base, Jan Sahas conducted extensive outreach at various departure points, including home villages and transit hubs, to register workers. Successfully registering over 89,000 migrant workers, surveyors then followed up at destination sites to assess the effectiveness of program interventions- specifically, access to entitlements and operation of a helpline- on reducing the incidence of forced labor. Follow-up communication with registered workers, combined with worker interviews, revealed that Jan Sahas’ programming was making a difference. Workers who were helped to access social protection benefits reported additional income and savings while those accessing the helpline were able to recover unpaid wages, escape forced labor conditions, and generally, feel safer. Jan Sahas hopes this data will encourage greater investment in similar prevention efforts. When more is known about migrant workers and experiences and what factors increase risks of exploitation, targeted action can be taken to reduce and ultimately eradicate forced labor.
Engaging employers to reduce the risk of forced labor
While Jan Sahas supported migrants to build greater financial security and provided them an outlet to air grievances and pursue justice, other implementing partners focused on developing the capacity of micro-contractors. Micro-contractors are the primary employers of unskilled and semi-skilled construction workers, employing between 5 and 25 persons at a time. Pratham and Sambhav led an effort to train micro-contractors on ethical labor practices to reduce the risk of forced labor among vulnerable migrants. Workers employed by trained micro-contractors expressed a desire to stay on with these employers as they had taken steps to create safe and equitable work environments, including ensuring on-time wage payments, providing safety equipment for risky jobs, and helping meet essential needs such as food and accommodation at destination sites. Women working for trained micro-contractors noted especially the attention these employers paid to eliminating discriminatory gender practices in the workplace. Unlike other employers, program-trained micro-contractors paid women separately from their spouses, ensuring greater female economic agency.
Building local capacity to effect sustainable change
Jan Sahas’ programming to address forced labor in India’s construction industry has reached tens of thousands of workers. Some have received support to exit forced labor conditions, others have registered successfully for entitlements to reduce risks of exploitation, and still others have filed grievances to recoup lost wages. Though this program may have formally concluded, Jan Sahas set up people and systems to carry its benefits forward. They successfully trained hundreds of social advocates or “barefoot lawyers” who will continue to share information on labor laws, rights, and entitlements with migrant workers and aid in benefit enrollments. Moreover, Jan Sahas continues to collaborate with key government actors at each stage of program implementation, including India’s Department of Labor, and other stakeholder groups across civil society, philanthropy, and the private sector to sustainably end forced labor. We are proud to be a part of this collaboration.
Jan Sahas is a community and survivor-centric nonprofit organization committed to ending sexual violence and forced labor. To learn more, please visit Jan Sahas.
This article and the project it references were funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State.
We Need More Ethical Recruitment Startups
Ethical recruitment is a high priority for GFEMS, as it is for many other organizations fighting modern slavery. Ethical recruitment is a solution that offers great promise to ensure that labor migration leads to successful outcomes, and not to exploitation.
One in four victims of forced labor is an international migrant — nearly six million people. The vast, complex system of overseas labor recruitment is a key driver of outcomes for labor migrants. Transforming these systems requires a holistic approach, of which we believe ethical recruitment can be a cornerstone.
Within ethical recruitment, we take multiple approaches that we see as complementary. We engage at the policy level, as our partners International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Blas F. Ople Policy Center are doing in the Philippines and International Labor Organization (ILO) in Vietnam. We engage at the industry level, as IOM and Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) have done in multiple geographies with us. We even engage at the individual and community level, to change perceptions and behaviors related to ethical recruitment, which our partner ASK India is doing in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, for example. And we lead with evidence from start to finish, conducting prevalence estimation, worker voice studies, and synthesizing our learnings across academia, private industry, non-governmental organizations, and the public sector.
One approach the field needs to see more of is ethical recruitment startups, be they startup agencies or other relevant businesses. Social enterprises like these have tremendous potential for impact. They may not offer the same breadth as industry-wide engagement, but they offer direct, deep impact as well as second- and third-order effects that can drive industry-wide change (e.g., driving up market prices for employers, which leads to lower worker turnover). But to realize their potential, we need more social entrepreneurs to pursue these models, and we need more funding that is the right fit for them.
An ethical recruitment startup can be many things. It can be a recruitment agency. Running a recruitment agency may sound unglamorous to some aspiring social entrepreneurs, but it offers direct, tangible impact and simpler models that may appeal to entrepreneurs whose strength is in management and execution. They also often have low startup costs and low barriers to self-sufficiency.
GFEMS has already had some success with the startup approach. Fair Employment Foundation (FEF) and Seefar’s TERA are great examples of ethical recruitment agency startups. They demonstrate that an ethical recruiter can be an excellent business. It is hard to even call FEF a startup anymore, now that they have one of the leading agencies in Hong Kong and have influenced the entire market. Other pioneers and precedents are cause for optimism, too. Staffhouse, an ethical recruiter since before it was a named phenomenon, is the largest agency in the Philippines. Pinkcollar, a startup in Malaysia, was profitable less than a year after launching.
Recruitment agencies are not the only path, though. Recruitment platforms, enterprise software, migrant worker engagement tools, and other non-tech service solutions all have the potential for profitable, impactful business models that give ethical recruitment a leg up on the unethical competition. These startups will appeal more to the entrepreneurs out there who are looking for novel models or who want to apply tech skills. For example, GFEMS partner Diginex Solutions (another example of an organization that has perhaps graduated beyond the startup nomer) is developing a range of digital tools that improve the cost-effectiveness of ethical recruitment, and similar thinking could inspire other products capable of supporting a social enterprise. Sama, a migrant recruitment platform, raised over a million dollars in 2020 and has the potential to reach a scale that dwarfs even the largest of agencies.
The concepts have been proven. The precedents to believe in these approaches exist. What we need now is more. We need more social entrepreneurs entering this space. We need ethical agencies in every country of origin and destination, forming a global network of end-to-end ethical recruitment. We need an ecosystem of non-agency players who are equipping the agencies, if not offering fundamentally different models.
Equally important, we need more funders fueling these social entrepreneurs. Prevailing modes of funding are not designed for these types of ventures.
Commercially driven investors, including impact investors, are looking for the hockey-stick growth trajectory and exit timelines that do not fit the financial life cycle of an ethical recruitment agency, despite otherwise attractive economics. That could change if any of the current pioneers have breakthroughs that ignite investor attention, but we cannot wait for breakthroughs. We have to make them happen.
More frustrating, ethical recruitment startups are too unconventional or too business-like for many grant-based funding mechanisms. They are generally set up to be run like businesses, not like typical NGOs. Grant-based funders need to overcome technical hangups, like trying to fit continuous business processes into project-based intervention frameworks, and recognize the potential for large-scale, sustainable, and deep impact at a low cost. Even foundations of modest means could kickstart an ethical recruitment agency that has immediate benefits for workers and long-term impact on a larger scale.
Worth noting is that FEF, with the support of some forward-looking supporters, has launched what could be an elegant impact-investing solution that combines equity and debt to better match the needs of investors and ethical recruitment agency startups. Put this initiative in the ‘one to watch’ category (or the ‘one to support now’ category if you are a funder).
The bottom line, though, is that the anti-modern slavery field should be motivating more social entrepreneurs to pursue ethical recruitment ventures and should be supporting them with appropriate financing to be successful. They won’t necessarily all be successful. And they won’t necessarily be enough to solve all the problems of labor migration. But they offer enormous potential impact that the field has under-explored for far too long.
GFEMS looks forward to providing updates on this project and sharing our learnings with the anti-trafficking community. For updates on this project and others like it, subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.
GFEMS and IOM to bolster ethical recruitment and protect migrant workers from Uganda
As a part of our partnership with the U.S. Department to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, GFEMS is excited to share the launch of our new project with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Coupled with other efforts in the portfolio, the Fund’s objective in this project is to create sustainable business models for the recruitment of migrant workers from Uganda, consistent with international ethical recruitment standards.
Ethical recruitment is a key focus of the Fund’s efforts. Working within our intervention framework, we target reduction in supply of vulnerable individuals, demand for cheap goods and services, and the enabling environment that allows modern slavery to persist and traffickers to operate with impunity. The activities in this project specifically target demand and the enabling environment.
Addressing the demand for cheap goods and services, the project specifically targets strengthening commitments from private recruitment agencies (PRAs) to create consensus, cooperation, and an enabling environment for ethical recruitment across the sector in Uganda. GFEMS and IOM will work with PRAs in four key regions of Uganda to provide training, tools, and support to shift towards ethical recruitment. We will use IOM’s International Recruitment Integrity System (IRIS) Labor Recruiter Capacity Building Program. In addition to general outreach to PRAs, IOM will collaborate with Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies (UAERA) to increase interest in ethical recruitment and the training and ethical recruitment certification support available through the project.
To transform the enabling environment, the project works with multi-stakeholder groups to improve policy, regulatory, and enforcement frameworks at national and local levels to enhance migrant protection and promote ethical recruitment. IOM will facilitate capacity-building activities on ethical recruitment for the government, including tailored training on ethical recruitment, migrant workers’ rights, and harmonization of labor migration policies among different ministries within the Government of Uganda. To ensure widespread adoption, the materials will be translated into all five major languages spoken within Uganda.
GFEMS incorporates rigorous learning and evaluation agendas into all of its projects. In our IOM partnership, we will
- Examine the implications of ethical recruitment practices on business models in Uganda.
- Identify the factors and tools that enable Ugandan authorities to implement policies and regulations that promote ethical recruitment.
We aim to determine if it is possible to create early warning systems at the District Local Government and sub-county lower local government level that allow stakeholders to identify those most at risk of facing unethical recruitment.
GFEMS looks forward to providing updates on this project and sharing our learnings with the anti-trafficking community. For updates on this project and others like it, subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.
This article and the IOM project were funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State
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Our next move: GFEMS makes first investments in East Africa
The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) is excited to share the launch of a new portfolio of investments in Kenya and Uganda. These new projects represent the growth of the Fund into East Africa and a significant expansion to our growing portfolio since our first investments in Asia in late 2018.
With support from the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, GFEMS is pleased to be funding nine new projects and working with seven new partners in East Africa. The portfolio totals nearly $10M USD.
“This is a significant moment for GFEMS as we grow and make progress towards our vision of ending modern slavery. These innovative investments will be a powerful step forward and reflect our unwavering commitment to ensuring local leadership and solutions that are sustainable and tailored to the needs of the populations we serve. We are excited to launch these projects with our fantastic partners and the support of the U.S. State Department, ” said Alex Thier, GFEMS CEO.
These innovative investments will be a powerful step forward and reflect our unwavering commitment to ensuring local leadership and solutions that are sustainable and tailored to the needs of the populations we serve.
These investments focus on two of the Fund’s key sectors– enhancing ethical recruitment and combating sex trafficking. These efforts are intended to reduce the vulnerability of people to trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation and to support survivors; reduce the market pressure for sex trafficking and impossibly cheap labor; and improve the enabling environment to ensure good laws and regulations are properly enforced, and impunity for traffickers is ended. Learn more about Our Approach.
PARTNERS AND PROJECTS:
- International Organization for Migration (Kenyaand Uganda):Ethical recruitment is a key to disrupting forced labor and debt bondage. Our project with IOM will work with recruitment agencies to foster ethical practices while supporting government actors to create accountability with new recruitment oversight mechanisms.
- International Associate of Women Judges (Kenya and Uganda): Labor trafficking among migrant workers is a complex, cross-border phenomenon. Information gaps and lack of coordination among law enforcement and judicial stakeholders hamper effective identification and prosecution of traffickers and prevalence reduction efforts. GFEMS and IAWJ will work together to bridge these information gaps and strengthen judicial and law enforcement response to trafficking cases.
- Terre des Hommes (Kenya and Uganda): Comprehensive efforts to combat sex trafficking need to include long term survivor support and community engagement. Terres des Hommes and GFEMS are focusing on skilling and livelihood training for survivors for long-term employment and building a proactive and supportive community through community-based prevention
- Hope for Justice (Uganda): Putting the needs and wellbeing of survivors first is a critical part of addressing sex trafficking. This project aims to not only provide rehabilitation services to survivors, but to improve the standards of care within the region to prioritize survivor-informed practices.
- International Justice Mission (Kenya): Improving coordination among different actors in the justice system– prosecutors, law enforcement, social workers– is essential not only to deterring trafficking, but for increasing survivor confidence in the justice system. Together with IJM, GFEMS is working to build community and survivor confidence in the criminal justice system, increase capacity of local law enforcement to investigate and prosecute sex trafficking, and to develop new victim-centered standard operating procedures for victim case management.
- Willow International (Uganda): To build resiliency against unethical recruitment and risk of trafficking, migrant workers need end-to-end support. Willow and GFEMS are working to build community resilience against exploitative recruitment for vulnerable populations in Uganda by providing pre-labor migration support, training, and resources, and rehabilitation and reintegration services for survivors.
- Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART) (Kenya): Reducing vulnerability to trafficking includes safely rehabilitating and reintegrating survivors into their community. GFEMS and HAART are working to support survivors in their reintegration journey, and empower vulnerable populations by driving their employability in safe jobs.
Across these projects and the Fund’s wider portfolio, GFEMS designs programs and strategies for future investments with systemic change and sustainability in mind. Our funding focuses on projects with high potential for replication and scale, and identifies opportunities to leverage national priorities and market demands. All projects are informed by, and tailored to, the populations that GFEMS seeks to serve. Through our partnership with the U.S. Department of State, GFEMS is working to establish sustainable change in at-risk communities, criminal justice reform, and survivor care through increased government, private sector, and community engagement.
GFEMS will continue to share information about our portfolio, partners, and impact.
This article was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State.
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.”
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.
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.