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Labour migration and trafficking in persons: a political economy analysis

Image credit:Labour Migration - ASEAN ACT. Image license:Hakan Nural / Unsplash

Labour exploitation and trafficking in persons are complex problems.

This research project reviews the political economy factors that affect labour migrants’ vulnerability to labour exploitation and trafficking in persons in South East Asia. This includes understanding the political economy of the structural, institutional and political enablers and constraints that shape prevention, protection and prosecution capabilities. The project aims to advance knowledge on pathways to reducing victims’ vulnerability to trafficking and labour exploitation, and to improving labour migrants’ voice and agency in navigating the challenges that they encounter.

The factors that shape vulnerabilities to labour exploitation and trafficking in persons cut across different political, economic, social and cultural institutions and structures. At stake are issues of exploitation and coercion by powerful interests, while those who are vulnerable to abusive work practices and trafficking in persons are among the most marginalised and voiceless in society. In the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, notably SDGs 16.2, 16.3, 8.7, and 10.7 and the ‘leave no one behind’ agenda, paying attention to these most marginalised groups is imperative.

In Southeast Asia, migrant workers – the largest category of migrants globally – are among the most vulnerable populations to trafficking in persons and labour exploitation. This is especially the case for those whose migration is not formal, making them irregular or undocumented in the countries they travel to, with even fewer protections available to them. Few people are ever officially identified as victims of trafficking and labour exploitation.

Analysis of interventions to date have demonstrated some successes, particularly in developing policy and awareness of the problem. However, fundamental challenges remain in effective governance, justice, protection, and prevention responses. Some of these barriers are well recognised and yet others remain more ambiguous. Some are documented and some remain only implicitly understood.