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Harrison Ellis - Blog 1: Safety Tips: Connecting Advocacy from Manila to Chennai

Harrison Ellis - Blog 1: Safety Tips: Connecting Advocacy from Manila to Chennai

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This is my second time participating in an international placement, the first being a six-month internship in Manila, Philippines with Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) secretariat. I am now completing an internship in Chennai, India for four months with the National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM).

My previous internship with MFA has influenced my decision to work with NDWM. The MFA secretariat is an umbrella organization that coordinates with hundreds of member organizations throughout the Asia-Pacific Region. During my time with MFA, I assisted with a project that entailed harnessing the casework of the Indian member organizations as advocacy tools for working with governments to better protect Indian migrant workers in the Gulf region. I previously wrote about this project in greater detail, and the piece can be viewed in one of my earlier blog posts. In summary, the project involved using an online database to categorize and quantify cases of abuse against migrant workers handled by our Indian members. In my previous entry, I indicated that I would like to engage in some capacity with the grassroots work of the Indian member organizations. Some fourteen months later, here I am.

I would like to briefly outline part of my initial experience with the work of NDWM and offer some insight into how working with them is substantiating my exposure to migrant’s rights activism within the MFA network. During my first week with NDWM, my co-workers took me to the Protector of Emigrants Office (POE) to observe the pre-departure orientations that they administer for prospective migrants who are preparing to work in the oil-producing Gulf states. I had previously read and heard a great deal about pre-departure orientations during my placement with MFA. However, I have never directly observed one until arriving in Chennai. The trainings take place in a dim waiting room where between 20 to 25 prospective migrants wait apprehensively to receive their travel documents. Most are males between the ages of 25 and 40 who are likely to work as masons or drivers. There have also been two or three female participants, who will likely be placed as domestic workers, excluded from legal protections offered by labour laws in most destination countries.

A co-worker who we call Amma (the Tamil word for ‘mother’) conducts the orientations. A grandmother of 59 years, she commands the attention of her audience. While the training was carried out in Tamil, another co-worker translated for me by taking notes in English. The amount of technical knowledge I learned during this process was astounding. The training consisted of three overlapping but distinguishable categories: the pre-departure process, steps to migrate “legally,” and safety tips once the migrant arrives and begins work in the destination country. The safety tips were the most striking aspect of the workshop.

Learning about these tips complemented both my policy-oriented experience at MFA and the theoretical concepts explored in academia with practical grassroots knowledge. I have included several pieces of advice that I personally found the most interesting, that I believe illustrate the precarious nature of labour migration. Before outlining the safety tips, I will provide some context about the power dynamic between employers and migrant workers in the Gulf. Of course, abuses against migrant workers are not unique to the Gulf region, but they are exacerbated by the Kafala system. The system ties the migrant’s work permit and visa to their employer, who also acts as their sponsor. Under the Kafala system, the worker cannot leave the workplace, leave the country, or even change jobs without their employer’s permission. This power imbalance is conducive to labour rights violations such as passport confinement; abuse in its physical, verbal, or sexual forms; excessive working hours without breaks; no rest days; unsafe/unhealthy working conditions; and it severely hinders access to redress for any of the above human/labour rights violations. Below are several of the tips given by Amma on how migrants can mitigate their precarious working situation.

Drivers, who are almost always male, should avoid using the middle mirror when driving female passengers. They should only use the side mirrors, as usage of the middle mirror can be perceived as fraternization. Being mistaken for fraternizing with local women, particularly the sponsor’s wife, puts the migrant in an extremely dangerous position.  

Migrants should not pick up any goods that they find on the streets, such as a missing bag or purse. People can scapegoat the migrant and accuse him of stealing, and he would be unable to prove otherwise.

Migrants should not laugh during conversations with the sponsor, as this could be mistaken as mockery or an insult.

As Gulf countries are predominantly Muslim, migrants should be careful not to eat or drink anything in front of people who are fasting during Ramandan.

Migrants have to be weary of bringing certain goods in the destination countries. For example, Khas Khas (poppy seed) is used for cooking in India but considered an illegal substance in many Gulf countries. Migrants caught carrying the product risk punishment ranging from twenty years in prison to the death penalty.  

Migrants working as drivers must remember that in case of any kind of accident, he will always be considered at fault. 

Migrants should be weary of the employment contract's expiry date and coordinate with either the sponsor or the Indian embassy to facilitate their return. If the migrant worker stays within the destination country after the contract expires, s/he is considered illegal and is liable to be arrested and prosecuted. However, the employer is not considered a criminal. 

While the above tips will not address the fundamental structures that enable human and labour rights abuses of migrant workers, they are practical steps that workers can take to protect themselves until governments amend current labour laws. Until the system is reformed, civil society groups will continue engaging with governments, at the national and international level, while simultaneously providing practical and short term assistance. In conclusion, during my introduction to the work of NDWM, I am already starting to make links between the grassroots work of NDWM and the policy oriented work of MFA.

Here are two photos that I took during my visit to the Protector of Emigrants Office (POE). 


 photo 20140507_222808_zpsde24d99d.jpg  photo 20140507_222625_zps456f852c.jpg