Compelling news from the refugee and migrant sector
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

It’s not just people smugglers exploiting asylum seekers

4 August 20150 comments

It’s a common phrase uttered by politicians and activists alike that ‘asylum seekers are being exploited by ruthless and unprincipled people smugglers’.

But new evidence indicates the exploitation of some of the world’s most marginalised and vulnerable people goes much deeper and is much broader than many of us realised.

Across the globe – even in some western countries – asylum seekers and displaced people at the bottom of the economic heap are being used as cheap or forced labour or even as slaves by unscrupulous employers.

A recent investigation by Reuters found that Japanese auto giant Subaru’s recent profit rises have occurred on the back of asylum seekers and other cheap foreign labourers from Asia and Africa.

They work at the car maker and its subsidiary suppliers at Subaru’s main production hub, in the city Ota, two hours north of Tokyo, mostly on short-term contracts.

Most of the foreign workers earn about half the wage of their Japanese equivalents on the production line and they are hired through brokers who often charge up to a third of the workers’ wages, Reuters reported.

They come from countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Mali and China.

The Reuters investigation included a review of pay-slips and asylum applications, and interviews with dozens of labourers from 22 countries. It also claimed that foreign workers are enduring abuses at the hands of labour brokers and companies in the Subaru supply chain.

Japan’s labour market, which is tightening as the nation’s population shrinks, and its traditional barriers to legal immigration mean that squeezed by a lack of workers, companies like Subaru and its suppliers are resorting to what is effectively a system of back-door immigration of asylum seekers, visa over-stayers and Asian trainees.

This gray market in labour enables the employment nationwide of tens of thousands of foreigners on low rates of pay in sectors such as construction, agriculture and manufacturing.

A hemisphere away in South Africa another group of asylum seekers are allegedly falling foul of their precarious status and becoming the victims of official corruption.

A report published this month says corruption is pervasive throughout the asylum process in South Africa.

According to a report published this month by Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) and the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), almost a third of asylum seekers and refugees have to pay bribes for correct documentation – a situation that violates the nation’s Refugees Act which stipulates that they are not required to pay any fees for documentation.

Based on anecdotal evidence collected from over 900 interviews with applicants applying at centres across the country, the report said that Refugee Reception Offices arbitrarily issue documents to asylum seekers and refugees looking to renew their documents.

Rights groups say incompetence and graft within the Home Affairs department is contributing to the number of undocumented foreigners who have recently become the focus of a government “clean-up” operation.

South Africa is one of the top global recipients of asylum seekers and received over 70,000 applicants in 2013 – similar to the number of those received in the European Union or United States. The large demand on the asylum system has allowed corruption to thrive but the number of refugees isn’t to blame, argues Loren Landau, researcher at ACMS.

In the UK some politicians have held immigrants responsible for the housing crisis, unemployment and the disarray in the National Health System. Some in the British government have held them up to the charge of ‘benefit tourism’ and say their reluctance to integrate or learn English has made British people feel uncomfortable. If they find work they are stealing our jobs, if they don’t they are sponging off our welfare state, they say.

But a new report titled ‘Forced Labour Awareness: Tackling labour exploitation among refugees and asylum seekers’ produced by the University of Leeds says there is “growing evidence that individuals who have an asylum claim in the UK are susceptible to forced labour”.

“Several thousand workers in the UK were estimated to be in forced labour in 2013. This means they were trapped in unlawful working conditions they had not freely entered or could not freely leave due to some form of threat or coercion,” the report said.

“Forced labour is the extreme tip of a much larger problem of severe labour exploitation that is often found in sectors with jobs that are low-skilled, low-paid and insecure including care, catering, cleaning, construction, domestic work, hospitality, manufacturing, retail and waste,” it said.

The report’s authors say organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers do not often talk to them about work, employment and how they economically survive.

They say there is evidence that asylum seekers have been exploited includes cases where they have been: forced to work against their will; not paid; paid less than the agreed amount; threatened with violence; threatened with being reported to the police or immigration authorities; prevented from leaving their place of work; stripped of their identity documents; and, deceived or misled about the type, conditions or nature of the work.


Jess Phillips
AMES Staff Writer