Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Organising beyond silos: confronting common challenges amongst migrants and workers

Only a coordinated challenge can make work better for all. We are all in this together.

Carlos LV/Flickr. (cc by-nc)

On 8 October 2018 we published the BTS Round Table on the Future of Work, in which 12 experts explain recent changes to the nature of work and offer new ideas in labour policy, organising, and activism. This piece has been written in response.

We thank the BTS editors for convening this roundtable and this call for contributions. It may come as a surprise to some to see a contribution from an anti-trafficking organisation. Yet for us at GAATW, trafficking has always been an issue of labour and labour migration. Our efforts to challenge exploitation and trafficking must therefore be grounded in a deep understanding of the world of work. This means taking stock of how and why work has changed globally, identifying the specificities of each sector, and finding ways to enable workers to organise and build alliances.

It has long been clear that trafficking, exploitation, and labour rights violations occur in sectors where women, often migrants or of lower socio-economic status, work. These sectors include domestic work, the sex industry, the garment industry, and agriculture. Each of these comes with particular conditions that enable abuse and exploitation. Domestic work takes place in private homes. Sex work is criminalised and highly stigmatised in most countries. Agriculture and the garment sector are rarely monitored effectively.

We also know that the experiences of women who have been trafficked or exploited in these sectors tend to be very similar. They endure long working hours, unfair wage deductions, physical, psychological, verbal or sexual abuse, control on their movement, confiscation of documents, and so on. The strategies that can reduce exploitation in these sectors are very similar too: stronger and better enforced labour regulations; oversight and accountability of employers; firewalls between labour inspections and immigration; and the ability of workers to organise and bargain collectively.

Despite these common experiences and challenges, there remains a tendency towards fragmentation – or siloing – of the efforts of different groups that support women working in these sectors. Many anti-trafficking organisations view trafficking from a criminal justice perspective, and some continue to employ a harmful “raid-rescue-rehabilitation” model despite extensive evidence that it does not work. Migrant rights groups typically exclude citizens. Local workers’ groups typically exclude migrants. Trade unions tend to be male-dominated. Many do not allow migrants to join or lead them, and usually exclude informal workers. All of these groups can and have been hostile to sex workers. And domestic worker organisations and sex worker organisations don’t often talk to each other, despite the fact that many women move between domestic work and sex work or engage in both at the same time.

Towards a united front

To address this fragmentation, GAATW organised a Knowledge Sharing Forum on Women, Work and Migration in April 2018. The participants included more than 60 representatives from trade unions, academia and NGOs, and their expertise spanned anti-trafficking, migrant rights, women’s rights, sex worker rights, and domestic worker rights. The primary aim of the forum was to share strategies for protecting women’s rights and reducing the risks of exploitation and trafficking, and to forge new alliances between these diverse groups.

Our discussions centred on decent work, migration, and gender-based violence in the workplace. They brought to light how a woman’s access to opportunities and knowledge and her ability to negotiate depend on her geographical location and social standing in the patriarchal structure. Given this realisation, we also focused upon the importance of cross-sectoral movement building for all women workers. On the final day, participants came up with a joint statement on violence and harassment in the world of work. This was released ahead of the 107th Session of the International Labour Conference in Geneva, where delegates met to deliberate on an international instrument to address violence and harassment in the world of work.

We hope to make these forums an annual event and to hold them in different parts of the world. Now more than ever there is an urgent need for social justice movements to come together. There is a need to build and strengthen movements across issues and across sectoral and geographical borders. Civil society organisations focusing on different issues need to come out of their silos and share their work. In doing so, they will gain a deeper understanding of each other’s concerns, challenges, and successes, and find out where their meeting points are.

Some of this cross-movement building is already happening. If GAATW had not talked to migrants and sex workers, we would not have understood how anti-trafficking laws are now being used to justify border controls and other repressive policies. If our members had not engaged with trade unions such as the Self-employed Women’s Association, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, or the International Domestic Workers Federation, they would have missed out on many lessons for how to unionise informal workers at grassroots level.

Quite naturally, all these different groups have different priorities, different strategies, and different opinions. But our goals are same. We all want to see a world free of exploitation, where people can move freely and are not criminalised or discriminated against because of their migrant status. We want to see a world where everyone can realise their rights. Above all, we want a world that is safe, secure, and peaceful for all.

As this Future of Work round table has shown, the state of the world of work requires a coordinated challenge. We need to find new ways to organise ourselves and legitimise diverse forms of worker mobilisation. Anti-trafficking NGOs, women’s rights, migrant rights, domestic worker organisations, sex worker organisations, and trade unions need each other at this moment. No single group has the answer. No single group on their own can effect the change that is needed. 

Round table on the future of work

About the author

The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) is a network of over 80 organisations across the world that work to promote the rights of migrant women and assist those who have experienced abuse and exploitation. @GAATW_IS.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.