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Interview: Media neglect migrant workers' conditions

Remittances sent back from migrants make up a big share of some national economies – but many of those workers are exploited abroad. Journalist Kalinga Seneviratne says the media must do more to raise awareness.

Migrant workers in Vietnam

Seneviratne says many male migrant workers seek jobs in construction

Kalinga Seneviratne is a Sri-Lankan born journalist and head of research at the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) in Singapore. The center does research in media issues and provides training to journalists and community radio stations in various Asian countries, while promoting certain topics. DW spoke to Seneviratne during Deutsche Welle's Global Media Forum.

Deutsche Welle: I think one of the issues that is very close to your heart is the issue of migrant workers. Why is that a topic you think is so important to be reported about?

Kalinga Seneviratne: Singapore has a lot of migrant workers. They have about 70,000 maids from the Philippines, about 100,000 maids from Indonesia, about 5,000 from Sri Lanka, (and) tens of thousands of workers - male workers - working in the construction industry from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand … mainly from Asian countries.

One of the issues I notice is the issue of recruitment agents. They charge from these workers - male and female both - what is called a placement fee. It is like a loan, because they won't have the money to put it up front. And for about seven to eight months, most of the maids and also construction workers work for no pay, just to pay back this loan. But it is illegal under the laws of both countries - the sending country as well as the receiving country. And these girls take it for granted that they have to pay this amount to work overseas; it has not been questioned.

Then, on the other hand, when the workers come and work in these countries, they work for lower pay than locals … Local companies bring them in, pay them less than half of what a local would be paid, and they make big profits. The companies make big profits. The international media mainly talks about the remittances. When the economic crisis came, everybody was talking about how much less remittances the Philippines were getting from the workers. Now what about these workers who were laid off from the Middle East, especially? They may have debts that they have to pay. Not much has been spoken about that.

Demonstrators hold a rally to protest exploitation of migrant workers

Many migrant workers fear retribution for speaking out

So what the media is more interested in is the economic aspect and the importance of remittances because that's a major economic factor for many of these countries. But you say that the fate of these people - and there's 80 million migrant workers - are not reported enough, is that it?

Yes, and also sometimes you can't really blame the media for it, because the workers are afraid to speak out for many reasons. Some because they feel threatened speaking out, threatened in the sense that they could be sent back. Or the agents will harass their families back home. So it's not easy to get the stories out if you are outside.

So if I understand correctly, one of your aims would be to inform the people in the communities that would be vulnerable about going abroad, what it means to go abroad. I understand that you also want to reach out to the bigger media, because you want to make a bigger impact, is that correct?

In one way, the people who are going out need to know this information. But the people who are employing should also be aware. If the big media is not covering this and showing that getting somebody to work for you for six, eight months without pay is a modern way of slavery, if this is not put into the heads of people who are employing, if it's not in the national agenda, people won't care.

Earlier this week, the UN came out with a new agreement on how to treat domestic workers. (Ed. note: The International Labour Organization, ILO, adopted a convention that is set to improve the conditions of life of domestic workers, millions of whom are migrants.) What do you think of that?

I was reading about it, (and) it looks like a good agreement, but the thing is how to implement it; this is the question. Because it's not (only) an international issue, it's a domestic issue as well. I know in many Asian countries, you have what they call servants … They are not paid well, they are 24/7 jobs, and this addresses all that. But would it be implemented? Because you will also need the legislative changes domestically, and that's where the challenge is.

For example, in Singapore, the overseas workers don't come under the labor law. There's a lot of protection under labor law for local workers, but overseas workers don't come under the labor law, and I think this is the case in many other countries. That's something international pressure could force governments to legislate. But finally, it boils down to a domestic issue – the local parliaments have to legislate for this, and then ensure that it's implemented …

As you say, it's a huge issue. How hopeful are you that, for example, media reports can help change this for the better?

Kalinga Seneviratne

Seneviratne thinks that media exposing human rights abuses helps improve the situation

Two years ago, there was a lot of exposure of exploitation of migrant laborers from Bangladesh, and after that reporting, there were lots of raids. And about 45 or something employers were charged and some were jailed for abusing foreign workers (and) abusing the law. In countries where government members themselves are involved in this trade, it's a big issue. That's where sometimes social media can come in, but then even the local media, even the commercial private media may not want to touch it.

There was this recent case that was in the international media: Sri Lankan maids who were tortured, some were killed, Sri Lankan maids in Saudi Arabia. And then there was also a lot of reporting in Sri Lanka. A lot of the private media in Sri Lanka and the government media (did) very emotional, very passionate reporting. And what I heard was the Saudis threatened to stop employing Sri Lankans. And the Sri Lankan government looked at how much remittance they were going to lose, and they have, in fact, basically asked the local media not to report too much on it, rather than taking action to improve the conditions of the laborers in Saudi Arabia.

So with frustrating examples like that, what makes you go on and try to stop it?

I think in a situation like that, you have to go on and on to hope there will be more networks built, and more and more media and NGOs will start talking about it and keep it on the public agenda. You have to keep on talking about this. There are a lot of governments, big business - they all are looking at money, how much profits they make. And if you don't make a noise, they won't care.

Interview: Anke Rasper
Editor: Sarah Steffen

Yes, this is really a big issue. I think the biggest area for this labor migration flow is the Asian region - that is, if you include West Asia, the Gulf States and all that. So it's not an issue between the west and the east, or the north and the south. It's within the south, and this type of slavery is happening within the south. So now, in some countries where the law works - now, Singapore is a good example where corruption is very low and the law works - and when the media has exposed certain things, the government has cracked down on it.

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