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Protecting the Most Vulnerable: Remittances and Worker Abuse

August 1, 2011

With $325.5 billion sent around the world by over 200 million migrants, it is easy to see why most discussions of remittances focus on the numbers. Often doubling or tripling official development assistance, remittance flows are an invaluable source of financing for many developing nations.

But in the enthusiasm over these quantitative measurements, one key measure is lost: an understanding of the migrants who work for each dollar those numbers represent. Far away from their homes, these workers often labor in poor conditions with little oversight or regulation. Moreover, as several articles published last month argue, poor economic conditions at home render migrant workers particularly vulnerable to predatory or even fraudulent practices.

A blog article last month by The Economist discusses the issue of migrant rights in the context of Indonesian immigrants who work as domestic servants in Saudi Arabia. Detailing the constant threat of abuse that workers may face, the article describes how the lack of workers’ rights have resulted in several prominent scandals, leading to tense relations between the two governments. In one instance, the Saudi Arabian government executed an Indonesian domestic servant without notifying the Indonesian embassy. The worker was accused of stabbing her employer to death after he allegedly abused her. Other workers have complained of long hours, unpaid work, and physical or psychological abuse.

In response to this and other similar incidents of worker rights violations, the Indonesian government has instituted a moratorium on sending domestic workers to Saudi Arabia, set to begin August 1st. The policy is blunt, failing to discriminate between households that abuse workers and those which do not. Consequently, it is unclear whether the moratorium will do more good than harm. According to the World Bank, Indonesia received 7.14 billion in remittances during 2010, and the Economist reports that 44% of these remittances come from Saudi Arabia. Losing that income could be ruinous for some families.

But even in other nations, the stakes are high as well. After the Indonesian government announced its moratorium in June, the Saudi government announced in July its own moratorium on maids from Indonesia and the Philippines (ostensibly to protect local labor). Remittances play a much larger role in the Philippine economy than inIndonesian. At 21.3 billion annually, the Philippines are the third largest recipient of remittances in the world and the ninth largest source of emigrants. Curbing remittances to the Philippines would have even more devastating economic consequences than in Indonesia.

These allegations of worker abuse are not limited only to developing nations. In a tale that strikes closer to home, Sarah Stillman’s recent article in the New Yorker examines worker abuse and human trafficking in the Middle East bases of the U.S. military.

Lured by the promise of well-paying jobs, migrant workers hail from far-flung countries including Fiji, Kenya, and the Philippine to serve as cooks, waiters, and hairdressers at U.S. bases. In total, these workers make up 60% of the total contracted force in the Iraq, but as Silliman explains, they are often hired by subcontractors to subcontractors, operating with little or no Pentagon supervision.

Silliman describes the tale of one Fijian woman who was promised a job as a hairdresser in a luxury hotel in Dubai. The job was a lie. As soon as she arrived in Dubai, she was boarded on another plane—this time, to Iraq. Having paid $500 on “paperwork” to obtain the position, she could hardly go back to Fiji. Instead, she served for nine months under the threat of violence and injury before returning home.

Silliman’s article is full of stories just as horrifying, and indeed, one criticism of the article might be its reliance on anecdotal rather than statistical evidence. But at the same time, statistics are hard to come by, and many workers have no incentive to report their abuses. Some work illegally, with forged papers to pass security clearances. Others have paid thousands of dollars for a job, and are unwilling to risk being fired. Even those who want to complain face significant difficulties, such as a byzantine bureaucracy that stalls and confuses even the most determined. At her most harrowing, Silliman describes how she tried to report the claims of a migrant worker that she had been sexually assaulted:

I dialled (sic) the U.S. Army’s emergency sexual-assault hot line, printed on a pamphlet distributed across the base that read, “Stand Up Against Sexual Assault . . . Make a Difference.” Nobody answered. Despite several calls over several days, the number simply rang and rang.

Since its publication, Silliman’s article has won public praise and even inspired Congressional action. On July 7, Representative Karen Bass (D-CA) proposed an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill prohibiting the use of Defense Department funds in human trafficking (note: DoD funds have never been “approved” for human trafficking. Rather, poor enforcement and oversight have allowed violations to occur). “A recent New Yorker article illustrates the urgent need for my amendment,” Congresswoman Bass said on the floor of the house, arguing that “more can and must be done to explicitly prohibit this human rights violation and ensure compliance with the law.”

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