June 26, 2014

BABSEA CLE is proud to sponsor a new initiative that seeks to build effective legal and direct aid networks to support labour migrants who face legal challenges in wealthy host countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Founded by an American lawyer and international migration expert Douglas Maclean, BABSEA CLE is fostering the initiative’s development into an allied independent organization.

Migration is a rapidly growing phenomenon in the 21st century, and nowhere more so than in the Asia-Pacific Region. Millions of people from East and Southeast Asia leave their homes to find work abroad, with many arriving in wealthy destinations, such as Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and the US. These countries benefit by obtaining badly needed labour power, while those who migrate earn wages that can help support their families and contribute to the economies of their home communities and the nation.

Unfortunately, many of these women and men face exploitative labour practices in their new jobs. Underpayment of wages, unfair debt arrangements, and dangerous work environments, along with unhealthy living conditions provided by employers are but a few of the common issues they face. For women, sexual harassment and/or assault can be a common danger, while both women and men can be subjected to forced labour amounting to human trafficking. Often, these abuses result in unscrupulous employers and brokers benefitting at the expense of those who are already in difficult financial situations.

Such acts not only bring economic and psychological harm to individual workers, but also directly impact the families who depend upon those wages. Widespread exploitation further harms communities and the home countries overall, who have lost labour power but gained no remittances in return. This exploitation is theft from the very people who can least afford the loss.

Obtaining Compensation When You Have to Go Home

Legal advocates and direct service providers who work on behalf of those exploited make full use of the robust legal systems in these host countries to obtain just compensation and even damages for the harm that their clients have endured. However, the justice systems are far from perfect. In fact, foreign claimants face a particularly large hurdle: legal remedies take time, and while clients may obtain the legal right to remain in the jurisdiction throughout the case, they often do not have the right to work.

Those exploited thus face a difficult choice; forgo employment and rely on local support while awaiting a judgment or settlement, or else return home and look for work. For many, this is not a choice at all and most simply go home. Unfortunately, the chances of continuing their case from abroad are slim. Remote representation requires regular contact, and for many returnees, finding work is the top priority. Losing contact is very easy, and when the client drops, so does the case. In the end, those who exploit migrant workers are never held accountable for their actions, and workers return home with nothing, or worse, return even deeper in debt than when they left home.

National Borders and Access to Justice—One Approach from Japan

A potential solution to this problem came up in my interactions with an active network of lawyers in Japan who serve foreign labourers. Many of their clients come from the ASEAN countries, including Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, and in facing the challenge of continuing the case after their clients leave Japan, some have directly sought out partners in the client’s home community. If an appropriate partner is found, the lawyer can work with their counterpart to keep the client in contact and updated. Local partners can even collect testimony or evidence as needed. Some cases have successfully concluded, with payments wired to the client. The amount of compensation, often large by home country standards, goes a long way to making the client whole again.

Unfortunately, finding an appropriate counterpart is often an exercise in frustration. There are simply no broadly established international networks of advocates who serve the needs of migrant workers. Unlike in the refugee field, for example, where advocates in different countries can quickly connect to work together on a case, those who advocate for labour migrants often have few connections with counterparts in other countries. What networks that do exist are often fragmented, confined to a specific labour sector, or are not very active.

Making matters worse, finding the right partners, and then establishing good working relationships, takes time and resources, two things often in very short supply. While many organizations are quite aware of the importance of building these networks, the needs of clients who are at their door today (rightly) take precedence.

Justice Without Borders—Building Networks, Knowledge, and Best Practices

The inspiration for Justice Without Borders (JWB) was born out of the very practical problems that local organizations in host and home countries face. Rather than attempting to build regional networks and serve clients at the same time, JWB addresses the former so that our partner organizations can focus on the latter.

JWB takes on the labour and time intensive work of identifying needs for partners in both host and home countries, and then bringing appropriate stakeholders together. As relationship building and establishing trust takes more than a single meeting, JWB also seeks to support collaborators in cross-border cases, ensuring that the initial partnership is successful for both sides so that future collaboration is not only possible, but actively sought out. We intend to build relationships that are self-sustaining; we will get the ball rolling, and our stakeholders will eventually take charge of maintaining and deepening these relationships.

Beyond these networks, navigating the logistics and legal mechanics of cross-border representation is a perpetual challenge. When advocates in different countries partner on a case, issues of costs, translations, and legal and cultural differences can present daunting barriers to success. Our goal is to break down these issues for our partners by providing strategic research to address these challenges.  For example, JWB is working with pro bono student researchers at the National University of Singapore to build a strategic map of service providers and appropriate legal options for labour migrants returning from Singapore. This map will lead to a practitioner’s manual that will not only benefit advocates in Singapore, but also in Thailand, Indonesia, and other relevant home countries.

Finally, JWB intends to ensure that our work, and that of our partners in all countries, can serve to benefit other advocates who support international labour migrants. Our work will be housed in an accessible Knowledge Bank, featuring a directory of service providers and practitioners, along with a repository of shared knowledge on cross-border representation. By gathering best practices, lessons learned, and JWB’s own research, we will enable advocates to advance the state of cross-border
representation and advocate for legal reforms that can better protect migrant workers’ human security and access to justice.

Going Forward—Pro Bono Advocacy on a Regional Level

JWB is in the first stages of these ambitious activities, but the response from our stakeholders has shown the critical needs our work can address. For example, we recently brought together two pro bono lawyer networks from Japan for a series of meetings with direct service and international organizations in Bangkok, Thailand. Participants on both sides immediately discovered that they each had long standing needs for partners in the other’s country. With JWB’s assistance, stakeholders on both sides are looking to address the logistics of remote representation, and then bringing a test case that will make cross-border cooperation between the two countries a reality.


Justice Without Borders hosted members of the Japanese legal groups “Lawyering Network for Foreigners” and “Legal Network for Technical Trainees” in Bangkok this March. The groups met with Thai counterparts and international organizations to discuss joint action for victims of labour exploitation or human trafficking who return home to Thailand.

As a new project, JWB is taking the first steps in addressing this critical need in cross-border cooperation. As pro bono representation is a key part of access to justice for migrant workers, BABSEA CLE’s work in building effective pro bono practices throughout the region is vital to ensuring those with legal issues can obtain the remedies that they need. Thanks to BABSEA CLE, JWB is successfully beginning work that will engage this pro bono capacity for a region-wide issue. We are immensely thankful for their support and sponsorship as we launch, and for tirelessly fostering the pro bono capacity needed to make access to justice a reality, both for those at home and abroad.