Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Interview: the struggle for migrant workers' rights

How can migrant workers protect their rights when they are often excluded from collective action?

Penelope Kyritsis Jennifer Rosenbaum
23 August 2017

Penelope Kyritsis: Can you start by telling us your name and what you do.

My name is JJ Rosenbaum and I am a Robina fellow for the Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School.

Penelope: Can you tell us what you see as the biggest challenges for addressing labour exploitation in global supply chains?

JJ: One major issue that we have been talking about today involves migrant workers in the supply chains, and using global supply chain analysis to look at how to protect migrant workers. Migrant workers are often at the bottom of supply chains of major multinational corporations, and traditional notions of freedom of association and collective bargaining often leave them out.

Penelope: What do you think the role of the government is in protecting workers?

JJ: For migrant workers it is important to look at how immigration regimes determine who is in labour markets, and how they can enforce their rights and participate in worker organisations. Sometimes that means workers who are out of status face criminalisation and threats when they try to organise. Similarly, guest workers on temporary visas also face huge obstacles to organising, as they are often deeply in debt and tied to one employer.

It is important to look at how immigration regimes determine who is in labour markets.

Penelope: What can workers do to be a part of mechanisms that ensure their protection?

JJ: The key issue is that governments need to protect workers in labour disputes. They need to keep them from being deported back to their home countries before they can participate in government investigations, before they can get to collective bargaining and build their unions. So the ability to remain in the country and the ability to work and have economic stability during those labour disputes is very fundamental.


Migrant workers in Blackwater, Virginia. Bread for the World/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Penelope: And moving forward can you think of any promising initiatives that have taken place to address labour exploitation?

JJ: As we are here in Pennsylvania today, I have been thinking a lot about the Hershey campaign. This was a ground breaking campaign where student workers from Turkey, China, and the Middle East organised with the Pennsylvania labour movement and exposed massive wage theft and health and safety violations in their plant, as well as subcontracting and contingent work that had been a strategy to undercut the traditional labour movement. So those workers together helped rewrite the rules of the visa programme so that it would be fairer for future workers, created a lot of energy, and shifted the conditions of those jobs at that plant.

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