Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Use of migrant workers is put under microscope

September 2008

A two-year research project is to consider how multinationals can limit the exploitation of migrant workers in their supply chains.

It will be led by US-based Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), which is beginning pilot projects and research studies in Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Jordan, Malaysia, Mauritius, the Philippines, Qatar, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.

The aim is to identify how multinationals should intervene to improve the treatment of migrant workers, including through policy change proposals at government level.

One outcome will be a trends report giving initial advice to the private sector on advancing labour migrants’ rights.

BSR estimates there are now 190 million labour migrants worldwide – people who have left their home nations for jobs elsewhere. In the past they have typically moved from developing to industrialized countries, but movement within the developing world is now ‘accelerating rapidly’ and causing new problems for multinationals sourcing from or operating in those parts of the world. 

The United Arab Emirates, where 500,000 migrants from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka work on huge construction projects, is named as one such region by the Human Rights Watch non-governmental organization. Human Rights Watch claims employers seriously and habitually abuse these workers’ rights, paying them extremely low wages or none at all and leaving them indebted to recruitment agencies for fees that UAE law technically requires employers to pay. Some companies, it reports, withhold employees’ passports and permit hazardous working conditions that result in high death and injury rates.

BSR says migrant labour problems are widely acknowledged, but ‘there are no clear recommendations for how multinational companies can help with research, dialogue and policy on this issue, which is central to their business’. Textiles and construction are two of the worst affected areas.

Tara Rangarajan, BSR’s managing director of advisory services, will lead the task of producing recommendations to companies on lobbying for government-level policy changes and tougher laws to reduce exploitation. Chad Bolick, BSR’s CSR strategy director, said it was crucial for multinationals to change their own behaviour if necessary, but it was also important ‘to ensure that companies have a voice and a platform to bring their influence to bear on public policy and corporate practice’. BSR hopes to represent the private sector at the second Global Forum on Migration and Development in Manila in October, a United Nations conference to discuss issues affecting migrants.

The BSR project, due to end in June 2010, is to be financed by the private John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which supports ‘human and community development’.

Business for Social Responsibility | Global | Supply Chain Management

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