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Defining the Role of Responsible Business in Protecting International Labor Migrants

June 1, 2009

The Challenge

An increasingly vital part of the global workforce, labor migrants now comprise approximately 190 million people, or about 3 percent of the world population. These migrants—many of whom are moving “South to South,” between emerging economies—often arrive in destination countries heavily indebted, with limited knowledge of local languages, laws, and culture, and with restricted access to protection. As a result, they are vulnerable to a number of human and labor rights violations, including passport withholding, bonded labor, broken contracts, and nonpayment of wages.

Despite attention to general working conditions in global value chains—and despite the fact that this issue can have a great impact on global businesses—there are no widely accepted and understood guidelines for how multinational companies can help manage the needs of migrant workers. The complex scope of the problem, and its potential solutions, lie beyond the abilities of individual businesses to address.

Our Strategy

With support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, BSR launched a two-year initiative to engage business in operational and policy efforts to protect the rights of international labor migrants in global supply chains in South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.

We began this project by conducting comprehensive outreach to experts worldwide from business, government, civil society, and academia concerning key features of labor migration between emerging economies.

Through this research, BSR identified stakeholder interests and activities, key areas of vulnerabilities for workers, and broad trends in the current system of labor migration between emerging economies. For optimal impact, BSR pinpointed key risks and strategic opportunities for company engagement.

Our Impact

This initiative represented the first effort to engage companies in an analysis of the South-South labor movement and its impacts on global supply chains. In the fall of 2008, we published “International Labor Migration: A Responsible Role for Business” on the nexus of South-South migration and business challenges, such as:

Applying this knowledge, as well as our expertise from more than a decade of supply chain work, BSR built a three-step business engagement strategy that encourages companies to educate themselves, engage with suppliers, and expand their influence through partnerships with government, trade unions, NGOs, and others.

At the BSR Conference 2008, we conducted outreach with international companies through our Ethical Sourcing Working Group and a Conference panel session entitled Migrant Workers in Your Supply Chain: Risks and Opportunities.” More than 40 companies from apparel, electronics, food and agriculture, and media sectors, as well as 20 NGOs and government representatives, expressed interest in joining a Migration Focus Group launched in early 2009 to address the needs of migrant workers in global supply chains.

  • Use of third-party recruiters and labor outsourcing companies increases the risk of abuse.
  • Migrant workers are unprotected under many national laws.
  • Few workers receive adequate predeparture skills training.
  • Processes for dispute resolution are often ineffective.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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