Transient Workers Count Too was represented at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, where the Bangladesh government’s handling of migrant worker issues came under scrutiny. Specifically, Bangladesh’s governance was reviewed against its commitments to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families. Bangladesh ratified this convention in August 2011.
This followed the submission of TWC2’s shadow report on Bangladesh, as reported in this earlier story. The report was done jointly with the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (HOME).
The session which TWC2 attended was the first time Bangladesh has been reviewed under this treaty. It took place in the first week of April 2017, at Palais Wilson (shown in the header picture), the part of the United Nations campus in Geneva that houses its human rights departments.
TWC2 Treasurer Alex Au represented TWC2. He went there as part of the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) delegation. MFA is a coalition of migrant worker NGOs across Asia, and TWC2 has been a member for many years.
Under the terms of the Convention, signatory states’ performance vis-à-vis the obligations set out in the treaty is reviewed by the Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW) every four years.
Informal session, Monday 3 April 2017
At Geneva, there were two sessions of note. In the first, known as the ‘Informal session’, non-government organisations such as TWC2 were invited to make oral statements to the Committee (CMW) to supplement their respective written shadow reports. Following a round of statements by NGOs present, committee members asked further questions to better clarify the highlighted points. The informal session lasted one hour. The Bangladesh government delegation was not in the room.
Explains Au: “Unlike the written shadow report which covered a number of issues, in our oral statement, we chose – due to limited time — to focus on one key failing of the Bangladesh government: its failure to effectively regulate the recruitment industry.”
TWC2 pointed out that our recent study has shown that first-time construction workers in 2015 were paying an average of S$15,500 in total recruitment fees, which was three (maybe four) times their annual basic salaries. Especially as these were for jobs with typically a one-year duration of Work Permit, such a starting debt burden would render these workers extremely vulnerable to exploitation. “If employers took full advantage of such workers’ vulnerability and began making unreasonable demands on workers,” adds Au, “such debt-burdened employment would resemble forced labour.”
“And that is why we consider the question of unconscionably high recruitment fees to be pivotal to the experiences suffered by migrant workers.”
Formal session, Monday – Tuesday, 3 – 4 April 2017
The informal session was then followed by a much longer ‘Formal session’, with the Bangladesh state delegation (about 10 men) present. A total of six hours were set aside for this part of the review process.
TWC2 and other NGOs were present in the room as observers, but had no right to speak.
For this session, committee members — and there were about 12 of them present — had taken on board the concerns we raised in our shadow reports and oral statements, proceeding to pose many similar questions to the Bangladesh state delegation.
Alex Au recalls, “Generally, the Bangladesh state delegation’s replies to committee members’ questions were not particularly constructive, and took three broad forms. Firstly, many replies took the form of broad assertions that there are laws, regulations and processes in place, with the implication that problems have been solved. Committee members asked further questions about how effective these laws and mechanisms were in real life, but the additional questions were largely met with generalities.”
“Secondly, questions were parried by denial that problems existed. This was the particular response to the specific issue of high recruitment cost. The state delegation simply said they did not believe the figures we presented.”
“Occasionally, we also noticed a fallback to the stance that Bangladesh was a newish nation and had not had time to institute proper data collection or put in place all necessary solutions.”
Right at the end of the six-hour formal session, the Bangladesh state delegation sprang a surprise. It mentioned a commitment to reduce recruitment costs to no more than three months’ salary by the year 2030. However, there was no time left for further clarification and thus it remains unclear whether it is three months’ salary for each year of contract. In any case, 2030 is very far away.
Recommendations by the treaty committee
Three weeks on, the Committee issued its Concluding Observations. The portion relating to recruitment agencies is as follows:
51. The Committee welcomes the various measures taken by the State party to strengthen the regulation and monitoring of recruitment agencies, including the establishment of the Vigilance Taskforce in 2012 and the co-operation with UN Women on ethical recruitment of women migrant workers. The Committee notes the State party’s commitment to reduce recruitment fees to no more than the equivalent of three months-salary by 2030. The Committee is however concerned about:
(a) Reports that Bangladeshi migrant workers often pay exorbitant recruitment fees and are deceived by local recruiters about the conditions of their contracts in terms of type of work and salary;
(b) The limited action to punish the agents or recruiting agencies that carry out unlawful and fraudulent practices, including reportedly providing forged training certificates;
(c) The fact that the Overseas Employment and Migrants Act (OEM Ac) does not require the recruitment agencies that facilitate the overseas employment of Bangladeshi workers to be licensed in the countries of employment.
52. The Committee recommends that the State party:
(a) Enhance the regulation and monitoring of the recruitment sector by fully and effectively implementing all safeguards provided in the OEM Act;
(b) Ensure that private recruitment agencies provide complete information to individuals seeking employment abroad and that they guarantee the effective enjoyment of all agreed employment benefits, in particular salaries;
(c) Investigate and punish illegal and fraudulent practices by recruiters, with a view to punishing those involved in exploitative practices; and
(d) Adopt a “no placement fees” policy for persons intending to work abroad.
It has been very useful for TWC2 to be present at the sessions. Says Au: “By being physically present and able to have a dialogue with the committee before the formal session, we have been able to help focus the committee on a foundational issue – recruitment cost – that lies at the root of Bangladeshi migrant workers’ vulnerability when in Singapore. TWC2 believes that if not for their massive debt burden and consequent fear of losing their jobs, there would be fewer opportunities for bosses to treat workers exploitatively.”
It is heartening that this issue is strongly mentioned in the Concluding Report. As provided by the terms of the Convention, Bangladesh will need to further address this issue and demonstrate progress by its next review session four years hence.
“It was also a great eye-opener to be able to be present in the room when the Bangladesh state delegation responded to the committee’s questions,” Alex adds. “We could get a better of the government’s position on the various issues, just by observing their body language or their choice of words.”
According to him, other members of the MFA delegation were very disappointed with what they felt were the Bangladesh state delegation’s dismissive tone or flat-out denials.”
“It shows us what a long road ahead we have,” Au adds, “when the government may not fully grasp the realities on the ground.”
“This is the kind of insight that would be hard to gain if not for our being there.”
Naturally, there are many other issues that require solutions, e.g. being tied to a single employer with no right to change jobs (thus also undermining workers’ bargaining power). But these other issues are within the purview of the Singapore government, not the Bangladesh government. For this reason, we chose not to focus on these issues at this Geneva session. They will be for other occasions when the responsibilities of the Singapore government come under the spotlight.
In addition to the review of Bangladesh, while in Geneva, TWC2’s Alex Au attended two other conferences and met with key people in UN offices. The two other conferences (one day each) were focussed on the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and the upcoming Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The first was largely an academic conference, while the second had government representatives together under the Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMD) umbrella discussing what provisions should be included within the proposed Global Compact.
Alex Au and the MFA delegation also held three other meetings: with (1) the International Labour Organisation, (2) the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on migration, and (3) the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking. In each meeting, he and Stephanie Chok (representing HOME) provided updates of the migrant labour situation in Singapore. “Views were exchanged,” Alex reports, “as to whether some of the harsh conditions faced by migrant workers would breach the Forced Labour Convention,” which Singapore has ratified since 1965, “and the Palermo Protocol on Human Trafficking,” which Singapore acceded to in 2015.