Modern slavery is a major global issue today, with particular relevance in the Asian region. 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 homes. There are many potential victims among the millions of women across the region – mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines – who are leaving behind their homes and families to work abroad in destinations like Hong Kong and Singapore.

What is difficult to see is even more difficult to measure. Without measuring the prevalence of exploitative practices, mapping where it occurs, and gaining a comprehensive understanding of the practices that lead to modern slavery, little can be done to address it. This research focused on collecting quantitative data to show the prevalence of indicators associated with modern slavery amongst domestic workers.


Modern slavery is not just a human rights issue. It is a transnational, economic and social issue that has implications for the development of emerging economies and their human capital. Promoting change has the potential to resolve harmful problems being faced by migrant domestic workers.


Modern slavery is prevalent among the millions of migrant domestic workers in East and Southeast Asia. The main source countries are Indonesia (4,875,000) and the Philippines. The main destinations include Hong Kong (330.000), Malaysia (180.000) Singapore (222.000), and Taiwan (210,000, 80% from Indonesia).


Our research design has a strong focus on the migrant perspective and draws on experiences throughout the migration process (see full report here). Surveying took place during seven months of over 4,000 respondents in four countries – Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore. In each country, comparable, comprehensive questionnaires were used to determine who counts as a potential victim, aiming to establish:


1. the prevalence rates of modern slavery


2. the key problems and issues at all stages of migration and


3. the migrant perspective on solutions.



Modern slavery is prevalent among the millions of migrant domestic workers in East Asia. The percentages measured by this research appear extreme: among current workers it is 17% in Hong Kong and 88% in Singapore. In addition, over half of returned workers in Indonesia and the Philippines count as victims of forced labour.

The results of the calculations may appear quite extreme. However, this does not mean that all forms of labour exploitation are significantly more prevalent in Singapore, or that labour exploitation is worse in Singapore than in Hong Kong. What it means in this case is that specific violations of migrant worker’s rights were measured more frequently in Singapore. For example, some of the most important violations that contributed to Singapore’s high prevalence rates are: excessive working hours (58% versus 5% in Hong Kong) and confiscation of travel documents (75% versus 26% in Hong Kong). The full report is here.



It has been noted by other researchers that there is a methodological bias towards qualitative research versus quantitative studies. In-depth interviews and case studies have certainly helped to raise the profile of the issues and identified various factors for further research, but ours is primarily a quantitative study to generate sector-wide prevalence rates using broad, primary data.


Quantitative research has the advantage that findings can be interpreted on a larger scale. It is also representative of a wider population and spans a wide full scope of migration experiences and economic outcomes for labor migrants in Asia.


The International Labor Organization (ILO) is one of the leading international institutions in promoting internationally recognized human and labor rights. The ILO takes a leadership role in the continuous development of international guidelines to define and measure labor exploitation around the world. The survey instrument used for this research was inspired by those guidelines and indicators, including the 2009 Operational indicators of trafficking in human beings and the 2012 “Hard to see, harder to count” methodologies (see full report for all indicators). We have also benefited from examining the methods of the Walk Free Foundation in developing quantitative measures of modern slavery.


So what are the indicators that point to modern slavery through labour exploitation? There are three categories: unfree recruitment, life and work under duress and impossibility to leave.


The questionnaire used for the research was designed to pick up on as many indicators of involuntariness and penalties as possible. The flowchart below depicts how victimhood is calculated.



The primary consequences of exploitation fall on the individual domestic worker – abuse, lower wages, reduced autonomy. Beyond the individual, looking at the patterns of domestic worker travel and exploitation, our findings suggest revisions to the stereotype . 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. Relatively few participants in our research were planning to use remittances to save for future investments, such as business investments or buying a house. Even fewer planned to make productive use of the remittance by becoming entrepreneurs. For remittances, the main purposes are helping the family and paying for school fees, but the main stated motivation for migration is to save money for the future. It is apparent that, for most people, money sent home is not invested, but spent by the family, and that any part of the salary that might go towards future needs or investments has to be saved by the remaining salary of the migrant worker. Put bluntly, remittances are not savings. In other words, 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.

“The money I earn fails to cover my loan in Singapore.”


- 26-year old migrant from West Java, Indonesia

“If our salary gets deducted every time we transfer employers, it is as though we are sold.”


- 33-year old migrant from Lampung, Indonesia

But saving is difficult for the migrant worker. For the first few months of a migrant worker’s contract, she receives little to no salary, because she has to pay back her migration loan. Once the salary increases, saving is still challenging because of other types of costs, including personal expenses, loans for a new contract, medical costs, and penalties charged by employers.


This undoubtedly contributes to the long periods abroad that many migrant workers experience. Prospective migrants usually plan to return home after the first two-year contract has finished. Among prospective migrants, 60% said that they would return home after their visa expires or their contract ends. In practice, the low incomes that they make do not allow them to save a meaningful amount of money for the future. However, since their remittances are equal to or more than they can expect to earn back home, their families become dependent on them staying abroad.


In the Philippines, the average time of working abroad was 4.5 years, and 32% worked more than five years abroad. In Indonesia, the average time of working abroad was four years, and 22% worked more than five years abroad.


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. 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% of their time abroad is spent paying the recruitment agency and is in that sense unpaid labor. More details on the consequences can be found in the full report.



The research found that exploitation and rights violations occur during all phases of labour migration.


The graphic on the right shows common problems experienced by migrant workers before and during recruitment and training, while working abroad, and upon the termination of their contract and their eventual return home.

“I live in the agency, and had to buy all my food. However, my salary still gets deducted. The agency keeps sending me around to all different employers and I keep being transferred. I am working only to pay the agency.”


- 31-year old migrant from Cagayan, Philippines



Rates of modern slavery amongst Indonesian and Filipina domestic workers is high in Hong Kong and especially in Singapore – both key destinations for migrant domestic workers in Asia. There are no significant differences between nationalities, but among returned migrants, prevalence rates were higher in Indonesia than in the Philippines.




The exploitation of migrant workers begins during recruitment – before they even begin working. On aggregate, 71% of respondents said they had  experienced some combination of confinement, confiscation of documents or verbal, physical or sexual threats and abuse. A quarter of respondents indicated that recruiters provided them with false information regarding the nature of the work, their salary and their living conditions. This facilitates the placement of a migrant worker into a life which they have not agreed to. Whether this is done knowingly or not, it highlights the key role the recruitment industry plays in the exploitation of migrant workers. The research shows there is more exploitation in Indonesia than in the Philippines, with Indonesian workers generally incurring more recruitment debt, and feeling more frequently forced by their recruiters to migrate.

Exploitation and Abuse


Victims of modern slavery do not always suffer extreme abuse, such as physical or sexual abuse. We found few cases of extreme abuse. The findings show that emotional abuse is far more common, and that most potential victims 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.


The aggregate result was that 63% of respondents faced exploitative practices while working abroad. The majority of respondents also experienced a multitude of issues that reduced autonomy in their workplace and impacted their finances.


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. Filipina workers generally have less debt, and feel less forced to migrate than Indonesians in the survey. However, differences according to nationality between current workers in Hong Kong and Singapore are small. This means that most 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 migrant domestic workers experience are still within the law, or appear to be within a grey area of the law. For example, many workers unknowingly accumulate debt (in the sample on average USD 1,845 in Hong Kong and USD 1,653 in Singapore) 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, who they pay disproportionate fees compared to their salary and the services received. As a result, many work under difficult circumstances for little or no pay. It is clear that closer monitoring of institutions is not sufficient to address issues and that structural change is required.

However, 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.


Our analysis of factors associated with wage levels suggests that spending time at a recruitment facility predicts lower average salaries. Perversely, working more hours is associated with a lower monthly salary.


On the other hand, there seems to be a positive relation between more rights and the situation of migrant domestic workers: Hong Kong has a lower prevalence rate of modern slavery than Singapore and grants workers more rights, including a minimum wage and the right to unionize. Still, the 17% measured in Hong Kong tells us that more steps need to be taken to protect vulnerable workers and improve migration outcomes on all levels, including positive economic impact. See the full report for more on key findings.



This research has shown the prevalence of modern slavery in Asia amongst domestic workers and the need for an integrated approach to address it. 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.


See the full report for details on recommendations in each area. In summary, key needs are:


  • Improving and implementing rules and regulations for workers, recruiters and employers;
  • 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 by making necessary tools and trainings available, and;
  • Investing in rights awareness campaigns that target both workers and employers.


Promoting change in the key areas listed above has the potential to unlock 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.

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

Implementing partners: