Forced Labor and the Migration Industry: Outsourcing Agencies and Migrant Workers in Malaysia
Abstract: Over the past decades migration has increased rapidly and during the same period migrationhas become an increasingly politicized and securitized issue. In the intersection betweenpolitically motivated barriers to migration in receiving countries and the continued demandfor migration (both on the demand and the supply side) new opportunities have arisen for amigration industry – facilitating and controlling migration flows.The migration industry has been suggested to contribute to forced labor and traffickingamongst migrants and this study focuses on the link between forced labor and the migrationindustry by devoting particular attention to so called agencies, facilitating migration processes(journey and stay) of migrants. This study is set in Malaysia that during the last decades hasbecome increasingly dependent on migrant workers from neighboring countries due to rapideconomic growth. The majority of migrants come to Malaysia through agencies, whichincreasingly also function as employers who outsource migrants to different countries.Agencies have been suggested to increase migrants’ vulnerability for forced labor. The aim of this study is to investigate what role these agencies play in forced labor amongst migrantworkers in Malaysia. A second objective has been to contribute migrant workers’ ownexperiences and narratives of how they utilize agencies and its link to forced labor.In order to investigate this issue a qualitative study was carried out in Malaysia constituting ofparticipatory observations and interviews with migrant workers as well as informants.The study reveals four different functions in which migrant workers utilize agencies, namelyrecruitment, to arrange practical and administrative issues regarding the migration to and from Malaysia e.g. transportation, employment, and administrative purposes. The study further found that agencies use several devious and abusive methods, which place migrant workers at risk of forced labor – e.g. withholding salaries, confiscation of passports, and various threats. Further, the study shows that to be employed and outsourced by the agency decreases migrants’ power of negotiation and increases vulnerability for forced labor. In contrast, migrants employed directly by a company are in spite of high vulnerability for exploitation found to have a somewhat stronger power of negotiation compared to workers outsourced by an agency. While previous research handles how the outsourced migrants use agencies, this study further suggests that also migrants employed directly by a company use the agency for administrative purposes. While this causes the migrants to lose a lot of money, I have notfound that this would place the workers in forced labor. Finally, the study identifies severalcontextual aspects in the legal framework in Malaysia that contribute to the risk of migrantworkers ending up in forced labor – including the criminalization of migrants and traffickingvictims, tying work permits to one specific employer, and providing scant avenues formigrants to seek justice and redress.
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