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Labour migrants, like all of us, are complex human beings who make difficult choices regarding their available options, yet strategies to end trafficking and coercive migrant labour practices rarely take migrant agency into account. Such initiatives regularly involve advocates, corporations, governments, and consumers – everyone but the workers themselves, who are deemed hapless victims.
This is a lost opportunity, because migrants have much to contribute. They alone experience recruitment first hand, making them intimately familiar with the gap between legal protections and what actually happens. As a result, migrants have important contributions to make as policy designers, as they are able to recommend standards and enforcement procedures that are concrete and context-specific. They are effective educators, providing their peers with information not only about formal rights but also about real conditions and sources of support on the ground. Migrants can also act as monitors of recruiter behaviour. Recruitment transactions happen in their presence, often with no other witnesses, and so they are uniquely positioned to report abuses. Perhaps most importantly, migrants can combat recruitment violations as active participants in trade unions and advocacy campaigns that seek to change the behaviour of recruiters, employers, and governments.
One example of an initiative powered by migrants is the Coalition of Temporary Workers (CTW) in Sinaloa, Mexico. CTW was founded in 2013 with the support of the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Project (“ProDESC”, from its Spanish initials), a Mexico-based human rights organisation that engages with migrants, miners, indigenous communities and communal landowners in Mexico to defend and advance their rights. CTW is made up of temporary labour migrants in Sinaloa, who implement collective efforts to advance and protect their own rights during recruitment. Many of the same migrants are also members of the National Guestworkers Alliance, located in Louisiana where they work, so they are able to demand recognition of their rights wherever they are.
Mexican law does not allow migrants who work abroad to form a union, and Mexican unions have been indifferent to the needs of migrants because they work outside the country. CTW offers a previously unexplored avenue of organising within the country’s large migrant sector. Members, most of whom migrate to work in the seafood industry in the United States, have identified fraud, illegal fees, retaliation, and the unpredictability of re-hire as critical problems with the recruitment process. Preventing these is important, as members’ own experiences clearly demonstrate that abusive recruitment practices negatively impact the ability of workers to speak up when their rights are violated on the job.
In collaboration with ProDESC, CTW has demanded both civil and criminal penalties for abusive recruiters through the Mexican justice system. Its members have also gone directly to the Mexican government to demand change. Its earliest victory was getting the Mexican Ministry of Work and Social Protection to recognise CTW as an interlocutor. This was an important achievement, as the ministry had previously insisted that migrant workers were not entitled to support because they did not work in Mexico. CTW convinced the ministry to inspect a recruitment agency known to charge fees for non-existent jobs. This was the first time the ministry had ever used its power in this way, and the inspection revealed 27 legal violations.
CTW’s work is far from easy, and its members have faced threats and retaliation by recruiters and employers. To be able to sustain their participation, they require protection from blacklisting and institutional support for their activism, both when they are at home and abroad. When they have access to these things, however, they can bring new ideas and new power to efforts to eradicate coercive labour recruitment practices.
Active migrant engagement in efforts to address recruitment abuses makes for more effective policy. More broadly, there is the fundamental question of fairness and democracy in advocacy. Migrants’ perspectives on temporary labour migration may differ from those held by the advocates, governments, and corporations who have led most anti-trafficking efforts to date. As central participants in transnational migration, they should have the opportunity to represent themselves in shaping efforts to address the problems they face.
For a full version of this argument and additional case studies, see Jennifer Gordon, ‘Roles for Workers and Unions in Regulating Labor Recruitment in Mexico’.