Worked to death: Top UN expert slams migrant exploitation

Indian migrant workers wait inside a railway station to board trains to their home states following attacks on migrant labourers by suspected militants in Kashmir, on the outskirts of Srinagar October 18, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Ismail
interview

Indian migrant workers wait inside a railway station to board trains to their home states following attacks on migrant labourers by suspected militants in Kashmir, on the outskirts of Srinagar October 18, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

What’s the context?

Lacking protections, seasonal migrant labourers risk a 'cycle of exploitation' in West, warns U.N.'s special rapporteur on modern slavery

  • Migrant workers' exploitation rife in rich countries
  • Despite laws, enforcement weak against forced labour
  • India must create jobs to stem migration for work

NEW DELHI - The death of an Indian farm labourer in a gruesome machine accident in Italy is "just the tip of the iceberg" when it comes to the exploitation of migrant workers by rich Western nations, United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, said.

Satnam Singh died in a hospital in Rome last month, two days after his right arm was severed by machinery in a melon greenhouse where he worked close to the Italian capital.

According to media reports, the 31-year-old undocumented worker was left outside his home after suffering injuries to his arm and both legs, his severed limb stored in a fruit crate.

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The case has put a spotlight on the conditions of migrant agricultural workers in Italy, whom trade unions say are often employed illegally then exploited.

"These rich, wealthy Western countries are dependent on migrant workers, for example, in agriculture, construction and others," Obokata told Context in an interview.

"This is just a tip of the iceberg. Labour exploitation happens in a wide variety of sectors where Indian workers may go," he said, nearly a week after declaring on social media that he felt "outraged" by Singh's case.

Workers - many from South and Southeast Asia - take up temporary seasonal jobs for five to eight months abroad with the promise of big wages to take home.

But campaigners say many risk exploitation and abuse - from back-breaking manual jobs and unpaid wages to lack of protective equipment and access to clean food and safe accommodation.

'Cycle of exploitation'

Obokata said he hoped the perpetrators would be prosecuted and that Singh's family would get financial compensation.

The U.N. expert pointed to his predecessor Urmila Bhoola's 2019 report on agricultural workers in Italy, where she found that migrants accounted for nearly 17% of all those employed in the sector, almost a third of whom were Indians.

About 40% of the migrants in Italy's agricultural sector are irregular workers, according to the U.N.

Tomoya Obokata gives a lecture on international law on human trafficking at Keele University in northern England, 25 March, 2013. Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Tomoya Obokata gives a lecture on international law on human trafficking at Keele University in northern England, 25 March, 2013. Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Tomoya Obokata gives a lecture on international law on human trafficking at Keele University in northern England, 25 March, 2013. Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Some politicians and trade unions have said the tragedy involving Singh highlights the broader issue of "caporalato", an illegal gangmaster system with great sway over farm labour.

"People are hired or trafficked illegally. Then they become more vulnerable because they cannot go to the police because if they do, they will be deported," said Obokata.

"So, they keep quiet and that again creates a vicious cycle of exploitation."

Some 170 million migrant labourers make up nearly 5% of the global labour force, with sectors such as agriculture,  food processing, healthcare and transport reliant on cheaper hires.

Limited resources

Obokata urged destination countries, including Italy, Britain and Canada, to do more, such as review and change temporary worker programmes, to prevent labour exploitation.

Recently back from Canada, Obokata said he had found Latin American migrant workers were badly exploited there because they were tied to a single farm or employer.

"Migrant workers (must be allowed) to choose their employers at their own will," he said, otherwise they run the risk of becoming undocumented.

Laws might exist prohibiting forced labour - but enforcement was a different matter altogether, he said.

"Governments simply do not have resources to visit every single farm and factory, every single day and every week," he said, urging authorities to increase inspections and expand their mechanisms for reporting abuses.

He also encouraged other countries to follow the European Union, which approved a new law in April to ban the sale, import and export of goods made using forced labour.

"It's not a silver bullet, but it's a good starting point," Obokata said on a video call from York in northern England.   

Young Sikh migrant workers walk on a street in the Agro Pontino area, south of Rome. Picture taken May 19, 2019 REUTERS/Yara Nardi

Young Sikh migrant workers walk on a street in the Agro Pontino area, south of Rome. Picture taken May 19, 2019 REUTERS/Yara Nardi

Young Sikh migrant workers walk on a street in the Agro Pontino area, south of Rome. Picture taken May 19, 2019 REUTERS/Yara Nardi

No jobs?

A Nepali woman, who worked as a seasonal labourer at a British farm, has taken her former employer to court over unpaid wages, among other allegations, in what labour rights activists say is the first case of its kind in the country.

The U.N. expert said victims such as her, including those without valid paperwork, should seek similar recourse.

Obokata said the Indian government must also crack down on "rogue recruiters", many of whom prey on desperate jobseekers, arrange dodgy jobs and charge exorbitant recruitment fees.

But the real root of the problem is widespread unemployment.   

India grew more than 8% last fiscal year, but has failed to create enough jobs to satisfy a population of 1.4 billion.

The central bank said earlier this week the country had added 46.7 million jobs in the financial year ended March, but private surveys continue to show much higher unemployment rates.

"At the end of the day, why do they leave their own country?
Because there aren't that many job opportunities," he said.

"If they had decent jobs, decent work in India, would they have to migrate? Probably not."

(Reporting by Annie Banerji; additional reporting by Joanna Gill; editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.)


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  • Poverty
  • Migration
  • Future of work
  • Workers' rights

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