“Human mobility touches every nation; but it is no more just a free and informed choice especially for people involved in contractual labor. Unskilled labor migration has become in the last 30 years the most significant aspect of human mobility. This form is of labor mobility is highly structured, organized and planned to ensure maximum profits. This multibillion dollar migrant industry recognizes the human being solely as an overseas contract worker; recruited, made to pay for his placement, and exported as a commodity for their own governments,” she explained.
Fernandez blamed governments and international institutions for commodifying migrants, saying that even the agencies of the United Nations and international finance agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) give a high level of importance on labor export and pressure governments to increase remittances of their overseas contract workers.
“Governments look at remittances as a tool for development and a means to repay global debt. They have actually put a positive spin on massive forced migration and commodification of workers. They have the gall to call it a ‘tool for development’ when it fact it results in the decimation and break-up of families, the exploitation of millions of workers and the uneven distribution of wealth and power in the world,” she said.
Fernandez said the proof that the UN itself is guilty of commodifying migrant labor is when it organized its first high level dialogue in September 2006 by creating the Global Commission Report on Migration. She said the report began as a study on the human rights of workers, “But it was replaced by another that emphasized using remittances as a tool for development within the migration process,” she charged.
The human rights advocate also decried that there is no human rights-based approach when it comes to migration.
“Why isn’t there a human rights-based approach? Migration is a human right and a legal activity. It’s not all negative, but the institutionalized exploitation of migrants had more negative effects than positive ones.”
She said the rights of migrants are violated with impunity and supported by employer sanctions and policies by governments, especially in the Gulf Coordinating Council (GCC) countries in the Middle East and the tiger economies of Asia.
The issue of migration, she also said, has become an issue of national security and migrants are often victimized by policies that are supposedly aimed at protecting the sovereignty and security of host countries.
“The public sphere places migration within a ‘security logic.’ The security agenda of various states creates a continuum of threats and general unease in which many different actors exchange their fears and beliefs in what makes a risky and dangerous society. Politicians and leaders transfer the legitimacy they have to impose stringent measures not so much against terrorists, criminals, spies and counterfeiters but against other targets — notably transnational political activists, people crossing borders, or people born in the host country but to foreign parents,” she said.
The ‘unholy trinity in migration: employer, agency, and the state’
On the matter of criminalization of migrants, Fernandez said, there is no clear line between irregular migrants/undocumented or regular migrants.
“There’s the perception among enforcement agencies, policy makers and even international institutions that irregular migration ‘steals their way in’ through irregular channels. This situation exists, but it is not the only reason migrants become undocumented,” she said. She then went on to give specific examples of the situation in Malaysia, saying that 80 percent of undocumented migrants actually entered the country legally, but many become the victims of various manipulations of the labor system.
“Companies outsource labor and recruitment agencies to sub-contract recruitment to other brokers in source countries. For instance, a migrant worker in Nepal pays a fee for a security guard or personnel position, but arrives on a plantation visa. He then becomes undocumented. He is imprisoned and whipped, although he did not pay for the visa. Also, employers in Malaysia confiscate and hold the passports of their workers and do not renew work permits, but it’s the worker who is punished if caught without a passport and if his work permit is expired,” she said.
“The key question is the issue of one’s status in the host country. The right to stay in a country is an administrative problem and offense. Why should a worker — who is more often than not a victim of circumstance and deliberate unfair labor policies — be held accountable rather than the recruitment agency or the employer?”
?Fernandez said that in Malaysia, 95 percent of arrested migrant workers do not receive any form of legal representation because lawyers are not allowed to visit migrants; the embassies do not receive information about the arrests or if they do, they fail to take action; and the National Legal Aid Foundation excludes all foreigners from receiving legal support.
“One of the major violations of rights of undocumented workers is that they cannot access the justice system or health care. Many of the destination countries fail to recognize the labor rights of undocumented migrants; only documented migrants have rights. State policies emphasize the individual rights of migrants more narrowly by emphasizing their ‘non-citizen’ legal status,” she argued.
At the end of her testimony, Fernandez called the migration business where the brokers or intermediaries — governments, recruitment agencies, the institutions on migration policies — are “the new mafia.”
“In today’s international, imperialist form of migration control, there is not only the employer but the agency and the state that act in unison as an unholy trinity to enslave the voiceless migrant worker. They do not recognize human or labor rights. The system is organised and structured to make money and profit rather than to protect and recognize the dignity of workers and migrants,” she said.