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.
Update: TERA is creating demand for ethical recruitment in India
GFEMS provides seed funding for ethical businesses to grow their market share, shifting demand away from exploitative recruitment to more ethical practices. Working with Seefar, we have created TERA (The Ethical Recruitment Agency), India’s first ethical recruitment agency.
TERA aims to reduce forced labor by pioneering research, making a business case on profitability of ethical recruitment, and piloting an ethical recruitment agency. Based in in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, the pilot agency offers exploitation-free work opportunities to vulnerable communities. To date, Seefar has signed contracts with several large employers, published a guide for profitable ethical recruitment, and stress tested pre-departure trainings and worker welfare protocols.
Seefar is identifying large gaps in existing research including lack of:
- A consensus on the definition and theory of ethical recruitment
- Quantifiable impact
- Understanding around unintended consequence.
Seefar’s research focuses on the effectiveness of ethical recruitment in reducing forced labor and the economic, social, physical, and mental effects of ethical recruitment on workers and their families. Preliminary findings from key informant interviews and case studies show overwhelming positive effects on workers and their families in the following dimensions: economic, social, physical and mental health, and human rights. Specifically, there is a direct relationship between lower recruitment fees, lower debt, and higher remittances to families and communities. Ethical recruitment can help migrant workers achieve upward social mobility in the long term and enhance their social status in their communities. Better customer service offered by ethical recruitment is a reliever of stress and concern at the individual and family levels. It also has important implications on mortality and morbidity of migrant workers abroad. Finally, ethical recruitment enhances knowledge of workers’ rights and safeguards those rights during, and often after, recruitment.
Seefar will continue The Ethical Recruitment Agency and accompanying research and offer evidence based and practical research to donors, governments, commercial actors and civil society members.
This project, and others in our portfolio like it, are working to show that ethical recruitment practices are better for everyone, including recruiters themselves. This shifts market demand for ethical recruitment agencies and ensures the long-term sustainability of ethical recruitment solutions.
GFEMS, ILO support new law protecting Vietnamese migrant workers
The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS), in collaboration with the International Labour Organization, is supporting the Legislative Reform of Labor Migration project in Vietnam. The National Assembly adopted the revised Law on Contract-Based Overseas Workers on November 13, 2020, which will improve protection for Vietnamese migrant workers and reduce vulnerability to human trafficking when it goes into effect on January 1, 2022. Now that the law has been adopted, GFEMS and the ILO are pleased to support the development of subordinate legislation to operationalize the reforms. Read the full press release from ILO:
ILO commits to supporting Viet Nam to enforce new law on Vietnamese migrant workers
HANOI (ILO News) – On International Migrants Day (18 December), the ILO welcomes the chance to improve the protection of Vietnamese migrant workers brought by the newly-revised Law on Contract-Based Vietnamese Overseas Workers. The Law, passedby the National Assembly on 13 November 2020, which will come into effect on 1 January 2022, builds upon previous Vietnamese legislation to strengthen protections for migrant workers.
In particular, the new Law has removed brokerage commissions payable by migrant workers to recruitment agencies, and prohibited charging service charges to migrant workers who use public, non-profit entities to migrate abroad. Migrant workers who pay high recruitment fees and related costs are more vulnerable to labour exploitation. including forced labor/human trafficking.
“By reducing allowable costs chargeable to migrant workers, the Law offers greater protection from these harms,” said ILO’s Regional Labour Migration Specialist, Nilim Baruah. “When workers are indebted by high migration costs, they may be less able to leave employment when they are abused, exploited or forced to work. Removing brokerage commission from the costs permitted to be paid by migrant workers goes part way to addressing this risk.”
For recruitment agencies, the new Law retains certain categories of costs chargeable to migrant workers, namely the service charge and deposits, but sets limits and will detail the amounts allowable in subordinate legislation to be developed over 2021. The Law states that service charges in subordinate legislation should not exceed the ceiling of three months’ salary, which recruitment agencies can take from workers and receiving partners. Setting this ceiling for these costs will enable migrant workers to make informed decisions about migration, and for awareness to be raised about the costs of regular migration.
The Law prohibits discrimination and forced labour within labour migration and permits workers who are subjected to, or threatened with, maltreatment, sexual harassment or forced labour to unilaterally terminate their employment contracts without financial penalty. Under the new Law, recruitment agencies may have their licence revoked if they use deceitful advertising or other deceptive means to recruit workers for the purpose of forced labour/ trafficking in persons or other forms of exploitation.
Additionally, as part of pre-departure orientation training, recruitment agencies are required to provide knowledge and skills in the prevention of forced labour/trafficking in persons, and gender-based violence
“The Vietnamese Government’s commitment to prevention of forced labour in labour migration is evident in the passing of this revised Law,” said Baruah. “The Law takes the critical first step towards reducing recruitment fees and related costs charged to migrant workers.”
The ILO’s Private Employment Agencies Convention, 1997 (No. 181) and ILO’s General principles and operational guidelines for fair recruitment state that “workers shall not be charged directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, any fees or related costs for their recruitment” and that “prospective employers, public or private, or their intermediaries, and not the workers, should bear the cost of recruitment.”
“The ILO is committed to supporting the process of development of subordinate legislation through social dialogue, and implementation of the Law throughout 2021 and into the future,” said ILO Viet Nam Director, Chang-Hee Lee.
This year’s International Migrants Day celebrates the 30th anniversary of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. The passage of the Law on Contract-Based Vietnamese Overseas Workers is an important step towards labour migration being an empowering and enriching experience for all Vietnamese migrant workers.
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.
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.
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.
Interested in exploring tech solutions with us?
Victim-Centered Case Management System Launches in Philippines, Streamlining Response from Government Agencies
The complex inter-agency coordination that must take place to ensure effective prosecutions and survivor services have been a significant barrier to delivery of justice for human trafficking cases. Khrizzy Avila, GFEMS Country Coordinator for the Philippines, states that “Labor trafficking cases involving Overseas Filipinx Workers (OFWs) are often complex and require quick and appropriate actions from multiple government agencies. These types of cases are often left unacted upon or suffer from major delays in agency responses. As a result, trafficked OFWs are often denied access to justice and grievance mechanisms and they lose interest in pursuing cases against their traffickers.”
With the launch of the Integrated Case Management System (ICMS), important strides are being made to address this longstanding issue. The ICMS is a digital case management system that tracks trafficking cases involving OFWs, ensures a harmonized and victim-centered response, and improves inter-agency coordination. As Avila stated, “The ICMS is the first of its kind to provide Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) member agencies with the tools to fully integrate their actions and services for trafficked OFWs.”
With support from GFEMS, the Blas F. Ople Policy Center and Training Institute, Inc. is making significant headway on implementing the ICMS with government agencies in the Philippines. Key government agencies are now partnering with the Ople Center to clear the backlog of cases and move towards using the system as a contemporaneous case management system. It will be used by government agencies to pursue cases against human traffickers, while ensuring proper legal, repatriation, and reintegration assistance is delivered to OFW victims. Specifically, the ICMS facilitates survivors’ access to services such as counseling, temporary shelter, education, and livelihood programs. Avila says, “The system tracks the services delivered to OFWs after government caseworkers and social workers assess their needs. Service providers are able to recommend specific types of services, and endorse their access to available facilities.”
The ICMS exemplifies the Fund’s vision of combating modern slavery by leveraging the power of technology. The Ople Center and GFEMS hope to increase the reach of the ICMS by raising awareness, resources, and expanding its use to region-specific task forces. Soon, online trainings and refresher courses will be added. The ICMS developers will continue to make changes based on feedback from participants. Eventually, the program will be available not only for OFW cases, but for all survivors of human trafficking.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the ICMS has proved even more crucial because government officials and other stakeholders are working remotely and the number of cases is increasing exponentially. Avila explains, “The ICMS is a great step forward in providing better care and services to OFW-victims of trafficking in persons. The ICMS launch this year has been particularly relevant due to current limitations brought on by community quarantine and the lockdown of government offices. There is a more compelling need to respond to cases and deliver services online than ever before.”
The ICMS aims to create a coherent, comprehensive mechanism of action that will combat slavery at its core and end impunity for traffickers. Avila concludes, “The ICMS will empower the OFWs or their next of kin in managing their own cases and charting their own paths for healing and reintegration. They will have knowledge about the status of their cases, which agencies are doing what, and the reasons for any delays. The ICMS will enable the trafficked OFWs to become more active participants in their pursuit for justice.” Through multi-stakeholder partnerships and more responsive complaint and reintegration mechanisms, GFEMS and the Ople Center are fighting back against exploitation and ensuring that all exploited people have access to justice.
This article and the Ople Center project were funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State