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The Empowerment of Migrant Workers in a Precarious Situation: The Role of Labor Inspection

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For decades, country-specific, regional, and comparative research has identified the legal, political, economic, and social structures that create precarity for transnational migrants doing low-paid work. Similarly, research has recorded in detail the exploitation and rights violations that occur for migrants in precarious situations, including undocumented workers and temporary migrant workers. The focus here has typically been on the practices of recruiters and employers in perpetuating exploitation. 

Less attention has been directed towards the question of whether, in their institutional design, labour inspectorates are fit to the task of protecting migrant workers’ rights. It is an important time to bring that dimension into the spotlight as well.

In the UN Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, States have committed to:

Strengthen the enforcement of fair and ethical recruitment and decent work norms and policies by enhancing the abilities of labour inspectors and other authorities to better monitor recruiters, employers, and service providers in all sectors, ensuring that international human rights and labour law is observed to prevent all forms of exploitation, slavery, servitude and forced, compulsory or child labour (para. 22.f).

In an earlier blog post, I discussed a recent KNOMAD’s research project on the Empowerment of Migrant Workers in a Precarious Situation, in which I undertook a comparative analysis of the operation of state-based labor inspectorates across five countries – Canada, Germany, Malaysia, Qatar, and South Africa. It examined the extent to which their design facilitates the empowerment of migrants in a precarious situation. 

The research identified recurring patterns in institutional design that impeded labor inspectorates’ ability to offer effective protection to migrant workers, including due to:

(i)    conflicts embedded in their mandates; 
(ii)    a mandate that restricts the scope of rights enforcement; 
(iii)    inspectorate structures that fragment enforcement; 
(iv)    lack of expertise and resources; 
(v)    reliance on individual migrant workers’ to bring forward formal complaints before enforcement is activated; and 
(vi)    lack of support that would make labor inspectorates accessible to migrant workers.

To move towards meeting their commitment in the Global Compact for Migration to enhance the monitoring and enforcement of migrant workers’ rights, KNOMAD’s research paper identified the following eight steps that States should pursue to strengthen the mandate and capacity of labor inspectorates:

  1. Establish specialized national labor inspectorates with a mandate to enforce the comprehensive range of rights violations that migrant workers experience across the full arc of their migration journey. 
  2. Staff labor inspectorates with personnel hired specifically for their expertise in labor migration, labor rights of migrant workers, and systemic understanding of how different dimensions of migrant worker precarity are constructed and interact.
  3. Ensure members of labor inspectorates have security of tenure and are compensated at a level that ensures their independence.
  4. Resource labor inspectorates at a level that enables them to engage in extensive strategic proactive inspection and rights enforcement in the sectors where migrant workers are concentrated, and in sectors where migrant workers are at high risk of exploitation.
  5. Staff labor inspectorates with interpreters who are experts in the languages of the largest populations of migrant workers and ensure access to other language interpreters as needed. 
  6. Design and audit labor inspectorates to ensure their accessibility to migrant workers, whether that access is through in-person engagement or through the use of technology that is easy, safe, and readily available for workers to use. 
  7. Ensure that supports needed for meaningful access such as legal assistance, interpretation, and continued authority to live and work in the state are implemented.
  8. Empower labor inspectorates to issue and enforce remedies that are responsive to migrant workers’ needs and that provide redress for violations of workers’ rights.

Read KNOMAD’s full report here.


Fay Faraday

Assistant Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Canada

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