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Undocumented Workers, the Most Vulnerable, the Most Exploited

Posted by lenolea on November 3, 2008

Undocumented workers are the most vulnerable among migrants. While they are denied legal status and are exploited in so many ways, they are also treated as criminals.


Undocumented workers are the most vulnerable among migrants. While they are denied legal status and are exploited in so many ways, they are also treated as criminals.

The International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees (IAMR), a counter-conference to the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), tackled the plight of undocumented workers.


An estimated 1.5 million migrants are getting into the US every year. Of these, half a million are undocumented.

The 2000 US census estimated that there were 12 million undocumented migrants in the country. Currently, the number of undocumented migrants is estimated to reach 16 million.

Carlos Canales, an El Salvadoran from the US-based May 1st Coalition said that since 2005, there have been three legislative measures aimed at controlling migration into the US. Canales mentioned the HR 4437 (Sensenbrenner bill), and HR 1645 or the Guttierez-Flake bill, also called the Strive Act and the Great Bargain bill.

The May 1st Coalition is a coalition of various migrant groups in the US. It was formed to lead the rally of more than one million immigrants and supporters to advocate for the rights of immigrants, held last May 1, 2006 in New York City.

Even as the Sensenbrenner bill didn’t pass through the US Senate, Canales said, the author of the bill put forward the concept of criminalizing undocumented migration. Before, undocumented workers were only liable to civil suits.

Canales mentioned some of the bill’s salient points to include, holding any organization or institution that helps undocumented immigrants criminally liable too, training local police as immigration agents, and the building of the wall between Mexico and the US.

The Strive Act, Canales said, would have increased the militarization of the US-Mexico border, placed immigrants – whether legal or undocumented- under suspicion of being terrorists, criminalized undocumented migrants, prevented the reunification of families for years, prevented a path to citizenship for up to 20 years, built more jails and increased detention of migrants, legalized racial profiling, mandated mass deportations, denied due process and equal rights for immigrants and charged huge fees for visas and re-entry to US.

The Great Bargain bill proposes residency for migrants based on a point system – 47 points for employment, 28 for education, 15 for English and civics and ten points for the status of extended family. Canales said the standards being set by the bill are too high that only a few would be able to get residency.

Eni Lestari, chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance (IMA) said, “In the US, the Patriot Act, Home Security Act and the succeeding law on border controls have unleashed its pangs on migrants and immigrant workers. These have spawned racial profiling and wanton acts of discrimination and disregard for the rights of even legal migrants and immigrants. Thousands of undocumented workers were swept by raids and crackdowns.”

In an interview, Canales cited the Bush administration’s largest crackdown on illegal workers at a single site. Last May, 389 immigrants in Postville, Iowa were arrested and held at a cattle exhibit hall.


Europe proves to be no different.

Rev. Cesar Taguba of Migrante-Europe said, “There is an alarming trend for Europe to institutionalize and intensify further its policy of shutting out as many migrants, deporting as many starting with the undocumented, and restricting the rights of the other migrants.”

The United Nations reported that 600,000 to 800,000 persons are trafficked every year, of which 120,000 are destined for Europe. Globally, 27 million fall under the category of enslaved.

Taguba said that the first to victimize the undocumented in Europe are those in the “illegal, inhumane and criminal trade of smuggling and trafficking of persons.” By sea and land from African and Eastern Europe, smugglers in persons charge 1,000 to 1,500 Euros per person. From Southeast Asia traveling by air/land/sea, the amount charged ranges from 9,000 to 16,000 Euros per person.

From 1998 to 2008, at least 500, 000 died at the borders of Europe. Taguba said thousands of men, women and children die by drowning and suffocation on their way to Europe. Last June, 196 died by drowning and 13 by land.

Those who succeed in entering Europe join the ranks of around 12 million undocumented. It is estimated that of the 4.6 million Africans in Europe, about 600,000 to 700,000 are undocumented. Of the estimated 954,000 Filipinos in Europe, 113,00 are undocumented.

Over the last three years, 655 Filipinos were deported.

Taguba said the undocumented migrants work in the informal labor sector as domestic helpers, cleaners, farm workers, waiters, fruit pickers, crop harvesters. They are also found in construction, warehouses and factories.

“Employers prefer undocumented domestic helpers because they work outside working hours, are not covered by laws, willing to receive low pay and difficult to organize. Employers exercise power by maintaining the migrant’s undocumented status and developing dependency for immigration status,” said Taguba.

He said that many domestic helpers suffer from verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment, poor living and working conditions and late or non-payment of salary.

He added that undocumented migrants satisfy the need of employers for an ever available and flexible labor, citing the agricultural and construction sectors.

“With the increasing xenophobia stroke by the rising political influence of the Far Right and amplified by the mainstream corporate media, the restriction/repression (of undocumented migrants) is getting to be the norm,” Taguba said.

He said that the recent approval of the European Return Directive by the European Parliament last June, “criminalizes, stigmatizes and marginalizes the undocumented.” It will be implemented beginning 2010. The Return Directive calls for six months detention, with possible 12-month extension and a re-entry ban for five years.

Member states like the United Kingdom and Ireland would like to have more stringent measures.

Earlier, Italy’s Lower House passed a bill called the “Security Package” which allows imprisoning irregular migrants for six months to four years. In the United Kingdom, a draft Investigation and Citizenship Bill presented last July includes provisions that require migrants to pay “bail” and wear electronic tracking devices to avoid detention while awaiting expulsion. They need to pay the cost of expulsion ranging from 11,000 to 13,000 pounds.

In Belgium, there is no moratorium on deportation. Each day, 16 undocumented migrants are deported while 8,700 have been turned away from its borders.

In 2006, the Dutch government announced that 26,000 failed asylum seekers and undocumented would be deported.

In 2006, one million were apprehended at the borders of Europe.

South American governments led by Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador condemned the Directive as “outrageous” and a violation of human rights. United Nations Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants Jorge Bustamante also condemned the Return Directive.

Taguba maintained, “Fortress Europe is mainstreaming far-right arguments that migrants are taking away jobs, harming communities, parasitically feeding on the social system, spreading HIV/AIDS and recruiting terrorists. Linking migration to terrorism is giving rise to heavily policed and militarized borders.”

He said politicians with anti-migrant views were elected into office. Such were the case in France, Italy, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland. In the upcoming 2009 elections for the European Parliament, the center-right and far-right which are anti-migrant, are expected to gain more seats and therefore influence the shaping of migration policies.


Undocumented migrants in Asia also face deportation. Their human rights are also being violated.

Gabriela Women’s Party (GWP) Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan said that in Singapore, so-called “illegal” migrants are fined, imprisoned and caned. Those caught entering or remaining in Singapore without a valid pass and those illegally overstaying for a period exceeding 90 days would have to endure 24 cane strokes at the back.

She said many Filipino immigrants also enter a country legally, but with only a tourist visa, to find jobs mostly in Asian, European and North American countries. Majority of them overstay or fail to get their permits renewed and thus become ‘illegal.’

“Such is the case of thousands of Filipino workers stranded on the Iranian island of Kish and Omani town of Buraimi, Dubai due to new and stricter visa rules implemented by the United Arab Emirates. The new visa rules in the UAE forced Filipinos who enter the UAE with tourist visas to leave the territory and stay in bordering countries for at least a month. Kish law forbids foreigners from sleeping in private homes, so migrant workers are forced to stay in relatively affordable but cramped and filthy hotels,” said Ilagan.

In Sabah, Malaysia, massive crackdown on ‘illegal aliens’ violated the human rights of migrants, said Ilagan. In 2002, more than 300,000 foreign workers, mostly Filipinos and Indonesians without valid documents were sent back home.

Tens of thousands of Filipinos, half of them women and children, had been caught and cramped in appalling detention cells. They were detained for weeks before they were deported back to their countries of origin.

Ilagan said, “Sabah newspapers confirmed the Malaysian authorities’ cruelties: beating and manhandling of men, children and even pregnant women. Dozens of women had been raped by police or jail guards; one of them a 13-year-old girl. Just like in previous crackdowns, countless people, especially children, fell physically, emotionally and psychologically ill, and at least 12 babies and children died while in detention due to dehydration, starvation and disease.”

The same incidents happened again in 2005. The same rights violations are inflicted again on ‘illegal aliens’ in the 2008 crackdown.

Ilagan quoted Al Jazeera, a news and current affairs channel that was able to video-document the Filipinos’ experience in Sabah, thus: “The relas, armed civilians given police power by the Malaysian government to arrest suspected ‘illegal’ migrants, forcibly enter houses in the middle of the night when the unsuspecting occupants are sleeping. If they are unable to show proper documents, a person, regardless of age or no matter in what health condition he or she is in, would be arrested and cramped together with around 150 to 400 people in deplorable detention cells. The arrested is made to sleep on the cold cement floor and is fed spoiled food, if at all.

In the same documentary, a Filipino, whose working papers had already expired, was arrested during a raid. Being a single parent, his five very young children were also taken to jail with him.

Ilagan, who joined a fact-finding mission this October, said she witnessed firsthand the Philippine government’s lack of assistance for the detainees in Sabah and the lack of preparation in providing relief goods and services to deportees.

She said that government agencies that comprise the Inter-Agency Committee are not coordinating their efforts and failed to probe the plight of deportees from Sabah.

Meanwhile, Butch Pongos of Migrante-Japan said that there are 240,000 Filipinos in Japan, 40,000 are undocumented.

He said that in 2005, the Japanese government reinforced the anti-trafficking law. “In spite of that, the number of people who were trafficked dramatically increased in the last three years.” He said many enter Japan using assumed names or by entering into bogus marriages. Pongos said these migrants are most vulnerable to unscrupulous employers.

Leticia Brondial, a factory worker in South Korea, shared her story. She came to South Korea in 2001 with a tourist visa.

On Feb. 26, 2007, she was arrested. That time she was eight-months pregnant. At the detention cell in Moklong Immigration in Seoul, she suffered tremendous stress and fatigue. She was not given any medical attention despite repeated pleas.

She was told to pay ten million woon before she can be deported. After three days, she was released per doctor’s advice.

Never a choice

Ilagan said, “Being illegal is never a migrant’s choice. Intense poverty, widespread hunger and massive unemployment in the Philippines have pushed 8.7 million Filipinos to seek work abroad. And because achieving a valid and legal working permit meant thousands of pesos in government fees, recruitment fees, medical examination, travel expenses, among many others, many Filipinos choose to use the back door.”

She said that some Filipinos wanting to work abroad believe that illegality is simply a provisional status on the way to achieving legal status. Once they are in the host country, ‘illegal’ migrants try anything and everything to get work contracts so that they could be regularized and obtain a work permit. But after a time, however, illegality becomes a permanent status due to the difficulty of acquiring proper authorization.

She said that employers in host countries prefer to hire undocumented migrants who would accept much smaller wages and poorer working conditions over ‘legal’ migrants or local workers.

Globalized resistance

In the face of all the abuses and discrimination, many undocumented migrants are standing up for their rights.

Migrante-Europe’s Taguba said undocumented migrants hold hunger strikes or fasting lasting from weeks to months mostly in churches. They also stage protest actions. “These are held in response to police raids and brutality and forcible deportation.”

They have also formed their own organizations, said Taguba. He said that thousands joined the campaign for regularization in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Spain and Italy.

Migrant advocates raise the calls “Migrant rights are human rights,” and “Without papers but not without rights.” They demand closure of detention centers and a stop to deportation.

Taguba said, “There is a need to intensify and broaden the campaign to protect the rights of all migrants and their families, especially the most vulnerable- the undocumented. The key to the success of the campaign is their organization and mobilization and linking their struggle with democratic and progressive sectors and forces in their countries of origin.”

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