Large Scale Research on Modern Slavery in East Asia

Seefar is conducting innovative modern slavery research in four countries to measure the prevalence of indicators among migrant domestic workers. The first publication related to this research was released in February 2016: Modern Slavery in East Asia: Protecting the rights and promoting the autonomy of domestic migrant workers from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Visit the research website

The survey of over 4,000 respondents was carried out with local partners, while funding was provided by the Macquarie Group Foundation.

Modern slavery among low-skilled labourers and migrant workers is a major global issue, with particular relevance in Asia – important sectors that are affected include construction, tailoring, fishing and agriculture. Victims of modern slavery are often hidden, which is especially the case for domestic workers, who live and work in the privacy of their employer’s home.

What is difficult to see is even more difficult to measure, but without comprehensive and reliable data, not enough can be done against it. Exploitation of domestic workers has received greater public attention in recent years, but existing reporting and modern slavery research has several gaps that our research tried to address, including:

  • Generating quantitative insights into the prevalence of indicators and practices of modern slavery
  • Comparing practices and outcomes in various origin and destination countries
  • Treating labour migration as a process that starts and ends in the sending countries, with various hurdles and risks along the way
  • Measuring economic and psychological effects of modern slavery (and lesser degrees of exploitation)
  • Including the migrant perspective on the biggest problems and opportunities for solutions

For the purpose of this research, the definition of ‘modern slavery’ is that defined by the international authority on international labour issues, the International Labour Organization (ILO).

 ILO operational definition of forced labour: work for which a person has not offered him or herself voluntarily and which is performed under the menace of any penalty applied by an employer or a third party to the worker. The coercion may take place during the worker’s recruitment process to force him or her to accept the job or, once the person is working, to force him/her to do tasks that were not part of what was agreed at the time of recruitment or to prevent him/her from leaving the job.

Key Findings

The research found that exploitation and rights violations occur during all phases of labour migration. Prospective migrants suffer from a lack of knowledge and influence over the terms of their migration before they sign a contract, committing themselves to migration and recruitment debt. During the recruitment, training, and while they are waiting for an employer, migrant workers are often subjected to various forms of exploitation and coercion. This is not a free market.

Once abroad, many migrants find themselves subject to marginalisation. The survey found cases of extreme abuse by employers and employment agencies. Issues such as over-charging, lack of freedom of movement and isolation are relatively common. After years of work, few migrants have saved a meaningful amount of money, and reintegration after return is difficult to achieve. As a result, most respondents in the survey felt compelled to sign up for migration again.

The media typically highlight modern slavery by pointing to cases of extreme abuse such as physical violence, but our research shows that most forms of marginalisation and abuse are more subtle than that. For example, emotional abuse is far more common. Migrant workers experience a multitude of other issues that severely reduce their freedom over their working conditions, their finances, and the way they are treated by their recruiters and employers. Common rights violations include limited freedom of movement (49%), confiscation of identity and travel documents (32%), and false information about salary (14%).

There are significant differences between the situation of Indonesian and Filipina workers during recruitment. Filipina workers generally start out with less debt, and feel less forced to migrate than Indonesians in the survey. However, differences in working conditions between current workers in Hong Kong and Singapore are small. This suggests that many problems identified in this research cannot be attributed to a specific nationality, and that the mistreatment of migrant domestic workers is a regional rather than a national issue.

Some of the major problems are legal in the countries of origin or destination, or appear to be within a grey area of the law. For example, many workers unknowingly accumulate debt (on average, USD 1,653-1,845 for first-time migrants) and have limited ability to influence their destination or to change employers.

Restrictions on the rights of migrant domestic workers in destination countries frequently cause them to seek assistance from agents, to whom they pay fees disproportionate to their salary and the services received. As a result, many work under difficult circumstances for little or no take-home pay. It is clear that closer monitoring of institutions is not sufficient to address issues and that structural change is required.

Finding Solutions

The structures that create these situations are not easy to change. Stricter legislation has not stopped recruiters and middlemen from charging exorbitant fees to prospective workers who are then in debt before they reach their destination country of employment. The agencies in destination countries continue to profit by overcharging migrant workers for their services; and employers still exploit the economic and psychological vulnerability of their employees by placing excessive demands and – in some cases – expecting workers to pay for their share of the migration cost.


A key conclusion from the research is that modern slavery among labour migrants is not only a human rights issue: it is a transnational economic and social issue that has implications for the development of emerging economies and their human resources. The report concludes with a a comprehensive list of recommendations, including:

  • Improving and implementing rules and regulations for workers, recruiters and employers, especially those targeting debt reduction and freedom of choice;
  • More transparency around migration opportunities, risks and costs by investing in accessible and relevant information sources;
  • Reducing recruitment costs and debt through more ethical and economically sensible recruitment practices;
  • Monitoring and vetting of agencies by the government, between agencies, and by migrant workers themselves;
  • Increasing financial planning capacity for workers and their families to achieve positive economic outcomes by making necessary tools and trainings available, and;
  • Investing in rights awareness campaigns that target both workers and employers.

Promoting change in these key areas has the potential to resolve problems that are most harmful to labour migrants – particularly their limited ability to control their own migration – and push all parties involved to pursue more ethical and economically sound practices.

Visit the research website

We will continue to conduct research on the experiences of migrant domestic workers, so look out for future Seefar publications on the subject.

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