Recently, Justice Without Borders, BABSEA CLE, and the Open Society Justice Initiative brought together a group of expert practitioners from four jurisdictions to begin a unique cross-border project. The goal: to identify common forms of exploitation that migrant workers encounter in home and host countries, and how practitioners in those jurisdictions could work together to solve cross-border problems for the client populations that they share.
Coming from Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Singapore, these experts were meeting for the first time together to discuss these issues. Amazingly, despite the incredibly busy migration routes that connect these places, lawyers, law faculties, and NGOs are just now beginning to reach out to counterparts in other countries who serve the very same clients.
Fortunately, the response to the workshop was phenomenal. Over 30 participants attended from all sectors of client service. As a law student at the National University of Singapore who volunteers with JWB and local NGOs, I was particularly happy to see that students were included as active participants.
This participation would also be long term. Rather than simply discussing problems, participants developed a work plan for a strategic guide on remedies to the most common issues that migrant workers face. The hope is that advocates in both home and host countries will be able to use this guide to further their own work, whether it is for providing direct legal service, guiding law students in pro bono service via clinical legal education, or developing “know your rights” materials for clients.
The teams split up into bilateral discussions, so that experts could focus on issues specific to particular migration routes. The legal infrastructure in each jurisdiction is at a different stage of development in terms of protecting migrant worker rights, and this was apparent from the varying focuses of the discussions. For jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and the Philippines, which have more developed systems, attention centred on improving access to the existing channels and increasing awareness of worker rights. Those countries with comparatively lower institutional support meanwhile focused on using existing legal remedies in innovative ways to bridge existing legislative gaps.
These discussions led to a list of key issues that each migration route wished to address in the work product. While the exact content of the strategic guide will be shaped by the most common issues that workers encounter, issues of exploitative practices by employment agencies, debt bondage, underpayment of salary, and abusive treatment by employers were thoroughly discussed.
Going beyond the content, however, I think the relationships that formed during our two days in Chiang Mai were an incredibly important outcome to the event. Having experts from both legal and NGO fields, and with backgrounds in different jurisdictions, led to very thought-provoking discussions that resulted in a wide variety of potential legal and non-legal solutions that can be used to address exploitation. One exciting example that participantslike HOME from Singapore and SBMI from Indonesia raised was the potential of using the mandatory insurance policy in Indonesia to make claims of reimbursement for work accidents, non-payment of salary, and even legal fees. While the system technically allows for such claims from migrant workers for injuries they suffered while abroad, none have yet been made. Discovering how to do so will be one issue that the experts will focus on.
By the close of the event, the participants had taken a collective step towards building a regional community of practice that could begin to meet the cross-border needs of migrant workers. As a Legal Fellow for JWB, I am excited to help coordinate the experts’ work on building a body of knowledge that is currently scattered across four jurisdictions. The remedies-focused discussions at this workshop also hinted at issues of capacity and policy reforms that I hope can be further explored in future gatherings.
Experts involved in the workshop included NUS, H.O.M.E. (Singapore); Hong Kong University, Daly & Associates (Hong Kong); SBMI, TIFA Foundation, Pasudan University (Indonesia); and Lawyers Beyond Borders, Ateneo de Manila University (Philippines), as well as observers from Beacon Law Corporation in Singapore, Upparat Law Office in Thailand, and Tokyo Public Law Office in Japan.