Woes of return

DATE: 13-Nov-2020

Wage Theft: An Introduction

Wage theft is an umbrella term for a variety of violations and unlawful practice by employers where they refuse to give rightful salary to their employees for the work they have performed. This can include non-payment of minimum wages at the least to their workers, refusing to pay for the overtime work they do or not pay the amount mentioned in the contract, forced unpaid leaves and non-payment of service benefits after termination from the job. These are violations of workers’ rights.

Wage theft is an issue commonly faced by migrant workers in foreign countries. This has been an issue which the civil society organizations and trade unions have been working towards in order to bring a transnational justice mechanism to address and provide a solution to the problem.

Migrants who work under the category of blue-collar jobs and domestic workers, especially in countries that practice Kafala System, easily fall prey to wage theft by their employers. Most of them, who hail from poor backgrounds are cheated by signing different contract in a language alien to them, from what they were promised before leaving their country of origin. They are made to do overtime work, without providing proper food and rest. Since the Kafala system gives an authority over the worker by their sponsor, they confiscate their worker’s documents upon arrival. If the worker wants to leave or change jobs, their sponsors can exploit the situation by demanding money or by refusing to pay the pending salary in exchange of important documents like passport and No Objection Certificate.

The Pandemic and the Increase in the Wage Theft Reports by Migrants

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly deeply affected businesses, many of whom had to permanently or temporarily close down, reduce the scale of their operations, or significantly cut their workforce. With the pandemic continuing to unfold, it has become increasingly difficult for employers to predict what the final impact on their struggling businesses will be. Entire sectors such as tourism, entertainment and aviation sector are at risk of being entirely wiped out if the current situation continues.

While businesses face massive challenges of unprecedented scale, workers face even more challenges. Workers in the informal economy - day labourers, migrants, temporary workers, and those without social security coverage are amongst those who are most severely affected. A large number people have lost jobs during these times and the migrant community has been severely affected by this. Cases of wage theft reported by migrants have increased multi-fold during and after the lockdown period. Some businesses have taken advantage of the current pandemic, to unlawfully dismiss and withhold the wages of the migrant workers that they employ. Many workers return home empty handed, having been coerced to forgo their due wages and benefits they were entitled to, while other continue to work under exploitative conditions and reduced wages for fear of losing their livelihood in the climate of a global economic recession. The pandemic has taken a bigger toll on migrant workers than what was foreseen. Although hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have already been repatriated, lockdowns and restrictions remain in place; many migrant workers are forced to live without jobs, without the wages they have earned, and remain stranded in countries of destination, waiting to be repatriated.

Due to the absence of effective mechanisms to address wage theft even in normal times, during this extraordinary time of crisis more migrant workers have been unable to file complaints and register grievances. By focusing solely on facilitating (or forcing) return and repatriation  and failing to address this systematic form of exploitation,  countries of destination and origin have  become complicit in exacerbating wage theft.