Catching Up With Douglas MacLean

September 6, 2016

Founder, Executive Director and Board Member of Justice Without Borders

jwb strategy mtgCan you share a bit about what sparked JWB’s creation?

When I was working in Japan, I came across migrant workers who had been badly exploited. They complained and were sent home. In one or two fortunate instances, lawyers handling migrant workers’ claims in Japan were able to connect with lawyers in the workers’ home countries and pursue the case together to a successful resolution.

The problem is that such partnerships often do not exist. In fact, errant employers often use this gap between home and host countries to their advantage. All too often, employers drag their feet so that the migrant worker has to stay in the host country for extended periods of time and face pressure, financial or otherwise, to go home. Once the worker goes home, his or her access to legal services is often cut off because of the lack of remote representation. This was a gap I hoped to resolve.

While I initially looked to have this project housed within a larger agency, I discovered that so many places, because of lack of organisational capacity or otherwise, were just not dealing with this issue. I thus started JWB to see if I could make a difference directly.

Can you talk about the core work that JWB does?

JWB is about handling a very specific problem well. We work to ensure that migrant workers can get the compensation they deserve no matter where they are, by building networks, knowledge and know-how to bring successful cross-border claims.

In more concrete terms, we connect practitioners in home and host countries and provide support for specific cases in the hope that the practitioners will develop an effective working relationship. The end goal is that these practitioners will continue to work with each other going forward. This is about building networks.

We also engage in legal research on specific problems that exists for migrant workers, for example, being forced to sign different legal contracts or paying excessive agency fees which are often collected in contravention of the law. It is through this work that we build knowledge.

Finally, we share our research and case outcomes with stakeholders so that the entire community can learn from each other how to bring successful cases. For example, we recently published the second edition of our Singapore Practitioner’s Manual. This is how we build “know-how” amongst our stakeholders.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced so far?

One of the first issues was deciding where to work. Identifying the place or places where we could make a huge difference on a small budget was a key challenge.

Another challenge was and, continues to be, the huge capacity gap in both home and host countries. When we started this, my thought was: “we just connect service providers in home and host countries [and] maybe train them in cross-border litigation”. Yet the reality is that a lot more work in developing the knowledge and know-how of actual case litigation needs to be done.

How did you go about filling this capacity gap?

We mapped the needs of our various partners and stakeholders and figured out how to meet them through both public and individualised training: training in the kinds of laws that apply and how to manage the logistics of running a case when your client is a thousand miles away.

What keeps you going in spite of the various challenges you face?

The encouragement that my team and I have received from our partners, our funders and people who care about access to justice. The knowledge that our funding, programs and case work have already achieved successful outcomes. In particular, we have had cases that were settled with money going home to improve the lives of individuals. And, our amazing partners, staff and volunteers. Being able to contribute meaningfully to this cause keeps me going every day.

What are your hopes for JWB?

In the immediate term, I hope to expand our work in Singapore and Hong Kong: screening more cases, bringing more cases to court and doing more strategic legal research. We also want to reach more migrant workers in the region by expanding into other jurisdictions like Malaysia and Thailand.

In the long term, I hope to see our partners fully connect and work across these migration routes. That will show us that our work is fully sustainable.

When you think of how far JWB has come, what stands out for you?

The words of a client who we helped with a salary dispute: he said “I don’t care about the money I just care that somebody recognises the problem and is working to help me. So many in my situation don’t have that.”