By Dr. Gyan Pathak
Many migrant workers face wage-related abuses, including non-payment, delayed payment of wages, and in many cases forced to work beyond the legal working time having most direct and tangible effect on their everyday lives. These sometimes lead to even debt bondage and forced labour.
International Labour Organization (ILO) Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) has noted such conditions with great concern and ILO has just released a guidance note on wage protection for migrant workers that said that adequate wages and timely payment are essential for securing decent work and social justice.
Governments around the world had acknowledged the issue in the 2022 Progress Declaration of the International Migration Review Forum committing to enhance international cooperation to allow for the recovery of earned wages, benefits and entitlements of returning migrants.
However, despite efforts by governments and workers’ and employers’ organizations around the word to develop wage protection laws and policies, delayed payment, underpayment or non-payment or wages continue to be major challenges for many of the world’s workers, particularly migrant workers. They also face difficulties in collecting any owed wage amounts due to language and legal barriers.
How important the issue has become for ILO can just be imagined by only looking into its estimated data revealing 169 million migrant workers today representing 70 per cent of all working age migrants. About 70 million of them are women migrant workers as per ILO’s 2021 data.
The issue of non-payment of wages is one of the most common forms of complaints by low-wage migrant workers and especially workers in irregular status. Moreover, they face discrimination, xenophobia and racism, unfair recruitment process, and restrictions based on their migration status which contribute to labour and wage related abuses, which are already a major labour rights concern for migrant workers even prior to the pandemic.
When conflicts erupt in the destination country, the migrant workers have to leave and return to their native country mostly without obtaining their entitlements. The COVID-19 pandemic has also presented an unprecedented challenge for wage protection. Countless families and communities are dependent on remittances form migrant worker relatives, which make the issue all the more important. Wages need to be paid in full and in a predictable and timely manner for workers to receive the expected benefits of the wages they earn, emphasized the guidance note.
Wages can determine job choice, the number of hours worked, and whether or not to migrate for employment. Workers need wages not only to pay for all of their own needs such as housing, food, clothing and so on, but also to address the needs of their families.
ILO has identified several issues that are meant to be addressed by regulatory measures. Those include total or partial non-payment, systematic delayed payment, below the minimum wage or the contractually agreed rate, non-payment of overtime, non-payment of benefits and entitlements including end-of-service benefits, non-payment of severance pay, and unlawful deductions.
ILO has identified 11 core indicators of forced labour which include withholding of wages and also debt bondage. When wages are systematically and deliberately withhold as a means to compel the workers to remain in the workplace and to deny the worker the opportunity to change their employer, it says. Actual withholding of wages or a threat to do so is being experienced by 27.6 million workers in forced labour. More than a third about 36.3 per cent had their wages withhold or were prevented from leaving by threats of non-payment of due wages. Women in force labour are more likely to be coerced through wage none-payment, an ILO-Wakfree-IOM report of 2022 had found.
A 2014 ILO report had found that (excluding forced sexual exploitation) “the total costs of coercion were approximately US$21 billion, with the total amount of underpaid wages estimated to be US$19.6 billion, with the remaining US$1.4billion attributed to illegal recruitment fees.
The guidance note has referred to several reports to point out how a number of structural factors increase vulnerability of migrant workers. Labour migration governance regimes that impose employment restrictions on workers is one of them. For example, workers on employer-sponsored visas, which tie a worker to a single employer, may be reluctant to complain about wage issues, as this could result in the loss of their employment and residence in the country of destination, an ILO report of 2022 had observed.
Migrants are often more likely to be employed in sectors or certain employment relationships that are not covered by the labour laws and are hence excluded from monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. Migrant workers also may be employed in “hard to reach” sectors and workplaces. These sectors – such as agriculture, domestic work and construction work – experience high levels of exploitation. Migrants may also be engaged in informal working relationships and insecure forms of employment – employment relationships that can lead to job insecurity, weaker earnings, and poor social protection and representation.
ILO research has also indicated link between irregular labour migration and vulnerability to forced labour. According to 2022 global estimates of modern slavery, the forced labour prevalence of adult migrant workers is more than three times higher than that of adult non-migrant workers.
The ILO guidance note says that wage protection must be provided even in case of insolvency and bankruptcy of the employers. In such cases workers must be treated as privileged creditors regarding wage debts in insolvency procedures. It emphasizes on effective monitoring and enforcement of laws for the realization of wage protection through compliance. States must work towards guaranteeing a “firewall” to migrant workforce against wage-related abuses and other forms of exploitations. (IPA Service)