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What role can empowerment play in preventing exploitation of migrants?

Approximately 25 million people globally are in situations of forced labour, of whom almost 60% are women. Women are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because they constitute a large part of low skilled labour and are often more prepared to take up low-paid, informal, insecure, casual work with lack of protections and poor conditions. They are also more likely to experience sexual abuse by employers or traffickers.
Image: Climate-affected internally displaced persons board a boat to travel to Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: M Ponir Hossain/Photoshare

As a result, investment in community-based interventions to prevent forced labour and trafficking in women has vastly increased over the past decade. Many interventions have invested in empowerment strategies under the assumption that greater knowledge of risks, regulation and rights could make women less vulnerable to exploitation. However, there is limited evidence about how effective these strategies actually are.

Emerging findings from the Work in Freedom Programme (WIF) and the South Asia Work in Freedom Transitional Evaluation (SWIFT) have begun to shed light on how female empowerment can work in preventing labour exploitation.

The WIF programme has invested in the prevention of trafficking and labour exploitation across Bangladesh, India and Nepal through their pre-departure empowerment strategy, developed to ‘empower women at all stages in their quest for decent work and economic independence’. It comprises training on safe and rights-based migration, financial literacy, rights at work and work skills. This component aims to foster informed choices for women, either by equipping them to migrate as well-informed, skilled workers, or by increasing their access to a local livelihood.

Findings from SWIFT suggest that women find the practical information received in pre-departure migration training useful. However, this knowledge may not be able to change the outcomes of their migration if structural conditions remain unfavourable to them and social networks don’t support their independence.

Pre-departure interventions like the WIF programme are likely to have a greater chance of success if they address inequalities in the migration cycle, and support women through migrant, social and family networks.

Our research indicates that women are often steered into employment by family members, social institutions or members of their caste network in whom they trust. These relationships provide access to resources, assurances and protection for migration. However, widespread gender power imbalances within these relationships and ethnic discrimination may limit women’s autonomy to decide, thereby reducing their ability to control events in their migration. Pre-departure interventions are likely to be more successful if they rely on community-based strategies to tackle gender power imbalances and address social norms restricting women’s mobility.

Social inequalities, gender and ethnic discrimination can undermine negotiation pre-conditions, even if migrants have the individual skills to negotiate. Power asymmetries often mean that employers can exert control and domination without much need for negotiation. For example, an International Labour Organization (ILO) Employers Survey showed that many employers in Lebanon abuse and exploit their workers even when aware of the illegality of their acts (20% of employers locked their domestic workers inside their home and 37% of those who were aware that this practice was illegal did it anyway). In such circumstances, employee’s opportunities and impetus to negotiate may be reduced.

Fostering recognition of workers’ rights by employers in a context of such entrenched inequalities, is challenging, but not impossible.  Reducing power asymmetries entails both broad structural measures to reduce inequalities and targeted policy measures.

Increased investment in the care economy (elderly care or child care) and family-friendly urban or rural services will enable households to manage tasks more efficiently and seek more specialised care when needed. This can reduce the burden placed on migrant domestic workers, provided targeted measures enable them to uphold their rights if more is asked of them without due compensation.

Empowering migrant workers is not resource intensive; it requires generating transparency and accountability about recruitment processes and enabling freedom of association – the right to organise and collective bargaining among migrant workers. Each of these represent the fundamental principles and rights of all workers as recognised in ILO Conventions. Improving labour inspection is also important.

Although women can benefit from improving their understanding of rights, fostering individual resourcefulness alone is unlikely to prevent human trafficking or exploitation at a population level. Empowerment in the migration process can potentially allow women to make informed choices and protect them from pressure and excessive influence by others in their community of origin and after migration. However, the conditions that allow women to assert power need to be in place before this can be achieved.