Garment Workers on the Move
Saturday, 02 May 2009 00:00

Participants at CCC consultation meeting on migrants

A consultation meeting in Malaysia moves CCC forward in the development of a strategy to support the growing number of migrant garment workers.

The garment industries of Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan have long depended on the use of migrant workers from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, Burma, and the Philippines. More recently, new garment factories set up in the Middle East, especially in Jordan and Egypt, have been drawing migrants from China, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

Migrant workers are also increasingly found in the garment industries of Europe, the US, and Australia. Brands and retailers depend on tight turnaround times and low transport costs for their ‘fast fashion’ lines, so they are now sourcing this production closer to their main consumer markets. But they still want it at the low prices they pay in Asia or Africa, so their suppliers commonly employ migrant workers.

Many migrants are desperate for better wages since they can barely sustain themselves as it is and also have to pay off debts to family members, recruitment agencies, labour brokers, or traffickers. They face particular challenges in speaking out or organising for better conditions. Many cannot work legally due to strict asylum or immigration policies and those who have entered the country legally risk losing their legal status if they are fired. Migrant workers often live in constant fear of arrest or deportation; many don’t even dare leave the factory or dormitory.

Even so, many migrant workers do take action. Burmese refugees working in garment factories on the Thai border are involved in taking legal cases and regularly go on strike. In Mauritius, migrants from China, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have taken industrial action for better pay and conditions.
Some brands and retailers have already had to deal with problems associated with the exploitation of migrants by their suppliers. Yet few have developed meaningful programmes to systematically address such issues in their supply chains.

To find out what the CCC can do to address the specific issues of migrant workers, it joined forces with the Dutch-based research organisation SOMO to organise a consultation seminar in Malaysia in late March 2009. Those present came from trade unions, labour NGOs, and migrants’ support groups from ten Asia-Pacific countries.

The meeting pointed up the need for stronger networking and cooperation between organisations supporting migrant workers in both the country of origin and the destination. Unions need to make more efforts to include migrant workers in their organising strategies, and to challenge the artificial divides between migrant and local workers. Companies need to develop a more strategic approach to the monitoring and remediation of issues concerning migrant workers. Finally, governments need to prioritise the protection of migrant workers’ rights rather than the enforcement of immigration policies that contribute to migrants’ marginalisation and exploitation.

There is a clear role for the CCC in working with these networks, and raising awareness among consumers and brands/retailers in Europe. A discussion paper outlining the key areas of concern for migrant garment workers, an overview of different stakeholders’ activities, and an outline of possible strategies to support them will be available soon.


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