Role of civil society actors

Trade unions

Trade unions operate in several countries in the subregion, but their impact is often limited. However, of note, Sri Lanka has come to “recognize civil society organizations and trade unions to be another effective means by which migrant workers can avail themselves of an environment of successful reintegration” (MFEPW 2008). Workers in the subregion tend to have weak organizational influence and unionization rates are relatively low on a global basis. This is not surprising given the extent of the informal sector (in India, for instance, 90 per cent of the workforce is engaged in the informal sector), which is mostly non-unionized. In addition, migrants are seen as better off for having found employment, making the need for organizational support less pressing. Since practices of collective bargaining rights are weak in countries of origin, unions cannot easily argue for such rights in the host countries (Khatri 2007).

The GCC States in general restrict the right to form a trade union for local and foreign labour and until recently, trade unions were prohibited. In some GCC States, such as Bahrain, trade unions can operate. A step forward was taken by Saudi Arabia 2002, with the approval of regulations on workers councils. However, foreign workers are expressly excluded (IFBWW no date).

At the subregional level, the impact of trade unions is limited. For example, trade unions have not been able to make collective efforts to ensure that labour issues are included in the SAARC agenda and other regional activities.

Migrant associations

Two expanding regional networks—the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) and Coordination of Action Research (CARAM) Asia—have member organizations in most of the origin countries discussed in this report, namely Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka and many of the destination countries or territories, namely Japan, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, Singapore and Taiwan Province of China. In a few countries of Western Asia, such as Bahrain and Jordan, some NGOs dedicated to this area have been established. A difference has to be made between organizations formed by migrants themselves or compatriot activists, such as by Filipinos in destination countries, and organizations set up by concerned non-migrant citizens, such as in Singapore.

MFA constitutes the largest and most active regional network in Asia, and is also the driving force behind the global migrant rights movement launched in 2006: the Peoples Global Action on Migration, Development and Human Rights (PGA) whose raison-d’être is to target global governing institutions and the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD). Many of the MFA member organizations are part of national networks, such as the Action Network for Migrant Workers in Sri Lanka. Local organizations engage in a variety of activities, ranging from rights advocacy to service provision, such as shelters and legal aid. The networks not run by migrants themselves are, among others, faith-based or administered by women rights or general human rights organizations.


There are a limited number of initiatives aimed at employers with regard to the upholding of a rights-based approach to labour migration. One such exception to this is an initiative by the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) aimed at promoting responsible behavior for businesses.22 BSR developed a good practice guide in tune with international human rights standards that outlines issue areas from which most migrant rights violations occur, such as the practices of recruitment agencies (suggesting direct hiring in the countries of origin by circumventing the use of private agencies), contracts (the kind of information they should contain), wage withholding, housing and dormitories, food and health and the right to join trade unions (BSR 2010).


22 See