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International Partnerships

Community changemakers help Pakistan’s migrant workers avoid exploitation

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An EU project being implemented by the ILO in Pakistan is raising awareness about safe labour migration among prospective migrant workers.

Sher Afsar sits with a group of 20 people in a village in the Swabi District of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, Pakistan. The group listens intently to what he has to say about life and work in Saudi Arabia. They share stories – good and bad – about family members’ experiences living and working abroad and they ask many questions, such as how and where they can obtain a passport and how much it will cost them. For many, it is the first time they are hearing about safe labour migration procedures and costs.

“I am glad to witness a visible change in the behaviour of people after they joined my awareness sessions,” said Afsar. “For a long time, our village people have been going abroad for employment and they have had fascinating ideas about life abroad as presented on the TV and in films. The local agents used to tell stories that their lives would be transformed once they started earning. People had no information on the Government institutions that support the protection of overseas workers.”

Sher Afsar Khan, Community based changemaker Copyright: Shayan Ali Khan/ILO
Sher Afsar Khan, Community based changemaker. Copyright: Shayan Ali Khan/ILO
People are now aware of their rights and the Government organisations that help them access justice when they have problems.
- Sher Afsar Khan

Afsar works as a “community-based change-maker,” as part of the EU-funded Global Action to Improve the Recruitment Framework of Labour Migration project (REFRAME), that aims to ensure fair recruitment and safe migration for migrant workers from Pakistan among other countries.

Labour migration from Pakistan has steadily increased in recent decades and continues to provide an important opportunity for improving family and community livelihoods.

However, a lack of good information about safe migration, fair recruitment channels and related services is a key challenge for those interested in becoming migrant workers. Without accurate information, they can be vulnerable to deception and even abuse during recruitment – a risk that can increase if they use informal or unlicensed intermediaries.

“This lack of information – and sometimes deliberate misinformation from different sources – often leads migrant workers to pay large service fees for their recruitment, putting them in a danger of debt bondage,” said Munawar Sultana, ILO REFRAME National Project Coordinator.

Afsar agrees. “People used to pay PKR. 200 000 to 250 000 (approximately EUR 1 200-1 500) to local agents for obtaining visas, but now they are paying PKR. 80 000 to 90 000 (approximately EUR 480-540) for visa. They are happy about this monetary benefit. People are now aware of their rights and the Government organisations that help them access justice when they have a problem,” he said. Although the workers welcome the reduction, the ILO maintains the principle that no recruitment fees or related costs should be borne by workers.

The REFRAME project response

To address this crucial information gap, the REFRAME project partnered with a local social enterprise organisation, Mera Maan, to train 27 women and men as community-based change-makers. These change-makers host information sessions in  districts with high migration.

The training covers key topics such as the risks of irregular migration, the channels and processes for regular migration, the rights and responsibilities of migrant workers, and the support services available, including complaints and legal mechanisms.

Change-makers ensure that sessions are delivered in local languages, are tailored to local circumstances and are embedded in local community structures – for example by including local counsellors, religious scholars, social workers, teachers, the local judiciary and community-based organisations.

So far, the change-makers have delivered awareness sessions to more than 9 800 prospective and returned migrant workers and their families. The information has also spread through the community, via word of mouth, messaging apps and social media, reaching more than 89 000 people. Network members have also received requests to host sessions in other communities.

Long-term impact

The REFRAME project, which is supported by the ILO and the European Union, has brought important, visible, and informed change to local community organisations and tens of thousands of beneficiaries

“Labour workers intending to migrate are now seeking the support of licenced Overseas Employment Promoters (OEPs) rather than only relying on informal brokers. They are even contacting the Protectorate of Emigrants Offices and Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment to verify the authenticity of OEPs working in their areas,” said Rooh-ul Ameen, President, Samaaji Behbood Raabita Council District, Swabi.

Empowering communities with information is an essential first step towards ensuring fair recruitment, safe migration and decent work for the millions of Pakistani workers abroad.
- Munawar Sultana, ILO REFRAME National Project Coordinator

Workers intending to migrate are also increasingly using official services. “Earlier, most people were not aware of the [government-run] Migrant Resource Centre. Now many aspiring migrant workers have contacted the Helpline of the Migrant Resource Centre, seeking pre-employment guidance,” said Shahzad Murtaza, President of the Youth Employability Network, Multan.

Empowering communities with information is an essential first step towards ensuring fair recruitment, safe migration and decent work for the millions of Pakistani workers abroad,” said Munawar Sultana. “We look forward to continuing this support throughout rural communities in Pakistan.

Find out more about the REFRAME project

REFRAME, financed by the EU and implemented by the ILO, is a global action aimed at preventing and reducing abusive and fraudulent recruitment practices, and maximizing the protection of migrant workers in the recruitment process and their contribution to development.

The project seeks to support the dissemination and operationalization of the ILO General Principles and Operational Guidelines for Fair Recruitment, at global, regional and national level, and is implemented under the framework of the ILO Fair Recruitment Initiative .

The REFRAME project works in the Guatemala-Mexico corridor, and the Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan-Arab States corridors. The project takes a multi-stakeholder approach, partnering with government, social partners (workers’ and employers’ organisations), business, labour recruiters, civil society and the media to address fair recruitment.