Human Rights Watch new report ‘Rights on the Line’ shows vast exploitation of migrants

Women News Network – WNN news release
December 13, 2010

A rising number of migrant workers, including migrant women and children working in Malaysia, Thailand and Kazakhstan are facing conditions of exploitation, confiscated passports, excessive work hours, manipulation of wages and worse according to a new December 2010 HRW – Human Rights Watch report.

After numerous cases of severe mistreatment and labor injustice against domestic migrant workers in July 2009, the government of Indonesia placed a stay of restriction prohibiting the further hiring of any migrant domestic worker in the region until, “new protections can be put in place,” says the new HRW report, ‘Rights on the Line – Human Rights Watch Report on Abuses Against Migrants in 2010‘. To date, improvements are slow to appear.

Domestic workers in Malaysia are a large group, numbering approximately 300,000 in the region. Most women workers, who come from Indonesia or the Philippines, have worked under conditions that give them little to no legal rights or protections. Working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, with wages as small as $118.USD per month, women face labor injustice the moment they start working, as recruitment job placement fees are taken out of their few wages, causing  them to become debt bond laborers. Migrant women domestics have been found to be extra vulnerable to entrapment by employers who restrict their movement and freedom. They are also extra vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse and rape.

“I was mistreated by my employers,” said Saminem, an Indonesian domestic worker in Malaysia, in the new HRW report.

“I woke up at 5 a.m. (and worked until I) went to sleep at 2 or 3 a.m. I never got a day off. I had no rest. The door was always locked. I could never go out, only when employers go out with me,” continued Saminem to Human Rights Watch. “I slept in the dining room. I never slept in a room ever,” she admitted.

In Thailand, 80% of migrant workers arrive in the country seeking asylum from political strife and atrocities, especially migrants from Burma/Myanmar. Others, especially women, come from Laos or Cambodia as they face life in Thailand working under what HRW says are conditions of, “extortion, sexual-abuse, trafficking, forced labor, restrictions on organizing, violent retaliation against complaints, and even death.”

In a nation where police protection can include extortion and intimidation, women migrant workers are left without legal options to complain to authorities when conditions are unbearable. Police and law enforcement, “often ignore or fail to effectively investigate migrants’ complaints,” says the 2010 Human Rights Watch report.

In a compelling account, Human Rights Watch has documented 72 cases of under age children in Kazakhstan who are currently working in the tobacco fields inside the country. Even though Kazakhstan laws sanction children under 18 years of age from working in the tobacco fields, a child as young as 10 years of age has been highlighted as one of the cases in the recent HRW report. In addition to hard labor and extended work hours, children are routinely denied potable water to drink, to use to bathe or to wash hands while working. Unsanitary living spaces were also found to be common and in some cases payment for labor was also denied after the work was finished.

2009 studies show that exploitation of migrant child workers has been a shameful fact in Kazakhstan’s tobacco industry; an industry that contracts to global tobacco giant, Philip Morris Kazakhstan (PMK), a subsidiary of Philip Morris International (PMI). In addition to some farms that often have less than desirable conditions, children migrants, who work side by side with their families, are often exposed to pesticides in the fields that has caused  Human Rights Watch to label the work in the tobacco fields of migrant workers as, “harmful or hazardous work.”

In response to the problems, Philip Morris is now placing tighter controls and monitors on Kazakhstani farmers, under contract, to insure thousands of migrants working in the industry will have their labor rights upheld. Training farm-safe methods of pesticide and fertilizer application and use is also part of a new Philip Morris Kazakhstan initiative, spurned by the HRW investigation and report. The initiative hopes that improved actions will improve the lives of migrant workers, especially its children.

A commitment to work with the Kazakhstan government to create legislation that will give migrant workers and their children greater protection, including expanded hours when migrant children workers will be required by law to attend local schools, is being launched by Philip Morris International and PMK.


Millions of women and girls around the world turn to domestic work in order to provide for themselves and their families. Instead of guaranteeing their ability to work with dignity, governments have systematically denied many migrant domestic workers key labor protections extended to other global workers. Domestic workers, often make extraordinary sacrifices to support their families and are among the most exploited and abused workers in the world. This 5:40 min video is a May 2010 Human Rights Watch production.


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