Multiple issues

Migrant workers are becoming an increasingly important part of the workforce within the global garment industry. These workers are in a particularly vulnerable position in terms of workplace exploitation and face specific barriers to articulating and demanding their rights as workers.

The main issues facing migrant garment workers are:

Lack of rights (implementation) resulting from insecure legal status

The lack of citizenship rights and the failure by states to protect migrants from rights violations is the basis for most of the problems that migrant garment workers are facing. An active role on the part of campaigners is therefore necessary to bring about legal change (through direct action, litigation and/or lobbying).

Without substantive rights enshrined in domestic laws, migrant workers will not be able to enforce or enjoy their rights and better working conditions. A large part of the migrant garment workforce is certain countries is undocumented, although there is a lack of data on undocumented migrants and their working conditions. They form the most vulnerable sector and the rights violations listed below effect them even worse.

Composition of workforce

The ethnic and/or national composition of the migrant garment workforce is country-specific. Migrant workers can be rural migrants (especially within large Asian countries) or non-citizens. Migrant workers are found in the garment sector in Asia itself (e.g. Burmese in Thailand, Thai workers in Taiwan), in Africa and the US (e.g. Chinese in Mauritius, Namibia and the US). Latino workers are found in the garment industry in the US and in South America (e.g. Mexicans in the US, Bolivians in Brazil and Argentina), and migrants from poorer Eastern European coutrnies, for instance, work in the garment industry in other Eastern European Countries.

Women make up the vast majority of garment workers, including garment migrant workers in factory and sweatshop settings. The rise in home work and other types of unregulated assembly have largely fallen upon immigrant women looking to supplement family income. Patterns of gender stratification found in the general labour market are even more apparent among migrant women workers, and women predominate in informal and private work settings as they exist in the garment industry (as well as domestic labour, etc.).

Low pay, no pay, deception & overtime

All studies reported wages below subsistence level. Overtime work is necessary to achieve subsistence wages and often imposed to reach targets and quotas. Migrant workers who work for a limited time period and need to earn as much money as possible in that timeframe also report that fluctuation in overtime is a problem, as income is not guaranteed. Many studies also reported that migrant workers are given false promises with regard to wages or are not paid for work they have done. This is particularly the case if migrants are undocumented. More info...

Debt bondage & contracts

The legal situation of foreign workers means they have specific contractual relations different from the local workforce (e.g. foreign contract labour situations, undocumented, temporary permits, arrangements through brokers, etc.). Work and residency often depend on the job, considerably weakening migrant workers’ bargaining position. The legal and contractual arrangements are often highly complex, involving a series of different actors in country of origin and destination (e.g. employment agencies, brokers, factory owners, embassies, etc.).

Labour organisation

Migrant workers are at great risk if they attempt to organise. All reviewed literature shows that strikes of migrant workers always lead to reprisals, and very often to replacement by other migrant labour or to deportation. 

Violence & intimidation

Many factories employing migrant workers throughout the world often operate in ‘grey zones’ and use coercion to discipline the workforce. Intimidation and violence are common also in the garment industry.

Sexual harassment & gender discrimination

Women migrant workers face both gender discrimination and gender-specific violence in the workplace. This ranges from rape and sexual harassment, to compulsory pregnancy testing and contractual arrangements with regard to pregnancy that constitute rights violations in the international human rights framework. Maternity pay is often non-existent.

Racial tension and pay discrimination

In many cases, poverty and competition for jobs creates hostility between local and foreign workers. In addition, bad working conditions for migrant workers and divide-and-rule tactics such as paying according to nationality or race also lead to tension amongst the migrant workforce, often expressed as conflicts between different nationalities.

No state protection or state violates itself

States as rule do not fulfil the obligations with regard to protecting migrant workers in their jurisdiction that they committed themselves to under international human rights legislation. Further, recourse options for migrant workers - such as compensation for accidents or rights violations suffered or claiming unpaid wages - are few or non-existent because of lack of citizenship, special broker arrangements and the forfeiting of responsibility by the state and manufacturers (e.g. in EPZs or subcontracting situations). The lack of state protection is evident in China, where local government, police and state-owned media collaborate to keep workers' protest under control. State representations of the migrants’ home country in the country of destination however, are also reported to refuse to help migrant workers in cases of rights violations.


Housing conditions for migrant workers in the garment industry generally do not conform to health and safety norms or “decent conditions”. In general terms, “migrant workers nestle in over-crowded apartments, live in vehicles at construction plants, in other places inapplicable for living”. Moreover, combining work and living space, either by living in a workplace or having your “workplace” at home, can create hazards for the worker and possibly for family members.

Health and occupational hazards

Bad health conditions of workers due to overtime, insufficient rest and occupational hazards, be it insufficient lighting, chemicals causing rashes or serious work accidents are common. In "Special Economic Zones" migrant workers are often dependent on the food provided by employers which is reported to be of bad quality. In general, migrant garment workers in all work settings lack social security and health case arrangements or they are dependent on their employers for health care. Bad housing and sharing work and living space often leads to health problems, due to overcrowding, lack of ventilation and lack of recreation.

Social exclusion

Migrant workers face a double burden vis a vis the local workforce as their migrant status implies a lack of social support networks, language barriers, and a limited access to services and support organisations. The temporary nature of their stay acts as a barrier migrant workers from integrating and learning local languages. Migrant workers seek out places frequented by their fellow countrymen and women. Social exclusion especially affects homeworkers.

Deportation as punishment

The irregular or ‘non-citizen’ status of migrant workers limits their work and residency rights and makes them dependent on employers but is particularly abused by employers and authorities in the case of a strike. Employers often confiscate passports as soon as migrant workers arrive at the factory.


A significant problem among migrant workers is that lack of knowledge about their own rights situation, or the unwillingness to organise and oppose management because they fear reprisals. This is the case especially for rural migrants who have generally received less formal education. Language barriers also impact negatively on rights-awareness.


An issue not so visible but of increasing relevance to addressing rights violations with regard to migrant labour in the garment industry is the use of trafficked labour. Trafficking occurs in sectors where labour rights protection is low and profits are high; the garment industry therefore qualifies as a high-risk sector.