Modern Slavery Research

Modern slavery among migrant domestic workers is a major global issue. Millions of women, often mothers with young children, feel compelled to work abroad, spending many of their productive years away from their families and communities. Over 40 percent of the world’s estimated 52 million domestic workers are in the Asia-Pacific region, and 80 percent are women. Indonesia and the Philippines are the main sending countries of migrant domestic workers, with domestic workers making up 60–80 percent of the migrant work force.

To understand the experience of migrant domestic workers and identify options to protect and promote their interests, we conducted large-sample, structured surveys with prospective, current and returned migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore. We interviewed 4,189 women and supplemented structured surveys with qualitative questions and focus group discussions.

The research for the study and publication of this report has been made possible thanks to the support of the Macquarie Group Foundation.         MHz_WHT   

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Our research suggests that modern slavery is prevalent among the millions of migrant domestic workers in East and Southeast Asia. The main source countries of migrant domestic workers are Indonesia and the Philippines. The main destinations include Hong Kong (330,000), Malaysia (180,000) Singapore (222,000), and Taiwan (210,000). For this research over 4,000 prospective, current and returned migrant workers were interviewed in four countries to establish:

  1. The prevalence rates of modern slavery
  2. The key problems and issues at all stages of migration
  3. The migrant perspective on solutions
Definition of Modern Slavery

How Prevalent Is Modern Slavery?

Practices of labor exploitation and modern slavery are widespread among the millions of migrant domestic workers in East Asia during all stages of migration. Before departure, many prospective migrants are confined in the recruitment facility, and their documents are taken away from them. A large number also receive false, deceptive or no information regarding the nature of the work, their contract, and the living and working conditions abroad. Fewer – but still too many – workers are subjected to verbal, physical and sexual abuse by their recruiters and agents.

Economic exploitation
Pressure to keep working abroad

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Measuring Prevalence and Impacts

The questionnaire used for the research was designed to pick up on as many indicators of involuntariness, threats, and penalties as possible. Two of the key findings are that the prevalence rates of exploitative practices are generally higher in Singapore than in Hong Kong, and that that there are significant differences between recruitment practices in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Prevalence of exploitation during recruitment

Confinement in the recruitment facility55%
Confiscation of personal documents38%
Recruitment linked to debt28%
False information about contract15%
False information about working conditions11%
Prevented from changing employers10%
Verbal threats and abuse6%
False information about living conditions6%
Deception about the nature of the work5%
Sexual or physical abuse4%

Prevalence of exploitation during work or life abroad

Limited freedom of movement or communication37%
Forced overtime17%
Verbal abuse17%
Confiscation of documents by employer16%
Degrading living or working conditions15%
Being on call 24/712%
Forced to do illegal or dangerous work12%
Locked in the workplace9%
Nutritional neglect9%
Sexual or physical abuse4%


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Implications Of The Research

Our findings suggest a correction is required to the stereotype of a migrant domestic worker. That stereotype – common among foreigners and among the migrants themselves – is of a woman choosing to work overseas for some period of time in order to save money, then transferring herself back home with a cushion of wealth. In fact, it appears that most people are spending several of their prime years contributing cheap labor to a foreign economy and bolstering consumption in their country of origin, but without supporting their household’s savings or investment. This is not temporary migration to save for one’s family – it is recurring participation in an overseas labor market to maintain a subsistence income.Our findings also suggest another way to look at the economics of this transnational labor market. Most women go into debt in order to migrate. They then pay back the recruitment agency via months of salary deductions. Once they finish their contract and seek a new one, the debt and repayment cycle starts again. We estimate that the average migrant spends four months of a two-year contract paying back the debt on that contract. In other words, at least 17 percent of their time abroad is spent paying the recruitment agency and is essentially free labor for their employer.


The Vicious cycle of migrant domestic work
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Modern slavery among labor migrants, such as domestic workers, is not only a human rights issue, but also a transnational economic and social issue that has implications for the development of emerging economies and their human resources.Promoting change in key areas identified in this research has the potential to unlock problems that are most harmful to labor migrants – particularly their limited ability to control their own migration – and push all parties involved to pursue more ethical and economically sound practices.The recommendations in this report require action by stakeholders on multiple levels, from national and regional government bodies in both source and destination countries, to the business community and migrant networks.

Recommendations for migrant worker sending countries


1. Legal reform: Government advocacy to improve existing laws, increase monitoring efforts of recruitment agencies, and effectively implement legislation to protect migrants.


Recommendations for Indonesia
Recommendations for the Philippines


2. Awareness: Provide information and training on rights and migration costs and benefits to prospective migrant workers to avoid abuse and exploitation abroad, and to improve migration outcomes in the long run.


Recommendations for information channels


3. Capacity building: Improve training and pre-departure briefings by preparing migrants and their families effectively for the financial realities of their journey, financial risks, and opportunities to save and invest.


Recommendations for capacity building on different levels


4. Change recruitment practices: Address problems with middlemen and recruitment agencies to stop rampant illegal recruitment practices, identify and address vulnerabilities, and reduce migrant debt for migrants.


Recommendations to change and monitor the current recruitment model


5. Improve reintegration: The reach of sending country reintegration services for returned migrants should be expanded. Programs and access to legal assistance, education and employment should be improved. Ideally, this process should start before migrants return home.


Recommendations and requirements for reintegration programs

Recommendations for migrant worker receiving countries


6. More freedom: Promote change of harmful employment agency practices to reduce debt-bondage in destination countries, even in more “advanced” destination countries such as Hong Kong.


Recommendations for issues with employment agencies


7. Empowerment: Current migrant workers should receive new tools and increased support to reduce their debt burden and achieve migration goals. Employers play an important role.


Recommendations for migrants and employers abroad