In the fight against human trafficking and the rise of modern slavery, a top priority for governments and human rights organisations has been to “break the business model” of migration brokers thought to be the main channel for such exploitation. Those same governments might do well to understand what those brokers do, and why they exist in the first place.
If you want to see brokers in action, then domestic work and construction work are as good a place to start as any. In these sectors people can be exploited thanks to a lack of written contracts, the hidden nature of the work inside private homes (in the case of domestic workers), non-compliance with labour laws.
Migrant workers from poorer countries and communities are heavily represented in both occupations. Often, the only way they can negotiate complex regulations is with the help of migration brokers who have the skills, knowledge and connections needed to move into these different worlds. Brokers are often former migrants or well connected and trusted members of the migrant’s own community.
The other side of the story
Brokers have been demonised as exploiters of migrant labour due to the level of control they can exert over migrants with no other means of support. However, there is another side to this which sheds light on why migrants keep using brokers. Recent research that I have been involved with in Ghana and Bangladesh shows a complex reality where brokers are indeed complicit in perpetuating exploitation and conditions of forced labour, but also help migrants to bargain for better working conditions.
Chapainawabganj in Bangladesh, a high migration district near the border with India, sees large numbers of men from farming families migrate to Qatar for construction work. In the Bangladeshi popular discourse, brokers are called Adam Bepari or “traders in human beings” typifying the view which assumes all the power lies with the broker. Similar ways of describing recruiters are seen in other countries.
The government has attempted to eliminate brokers but with little success. Bangladeshi men continue to use informal brokers for several reasons. Legal migration through the Kafala system, the sponsored visa system in the Gulf, is expensive and difficult because skills may not match available jobs. Migrants also say that they feel more protected by the “moral contract” with the broker, witnessed by family and elders. Many also want “free visas” that don’t tie them to a single employer, so they might have the opportunity to move on to better jobs through social networks in Qatar. This was only possible if brokers guided them down an irregular migration route.
Even when brokers broke promises on wages and contracts, migrants regarded the migration as successful because they had reached Qatar and found work, however exploitative. Migrants factor in hardship and precarity in the short term to achieve long-term goals of improved living standards and prospects for their families. Brokers, however imperfect, are seen as a necessary stepping stone.
Domestic work in Ghana
There are echoes of the same story in west Africa, where there is rural-urban migration for domestic work within Ghana. Here too brokers are widely regarded as unscrupulous traders who exploit vulnerable domestic workers.
However, our interviews with 76 migrants, employers, brokers and officials show the grey area. Brokers do help to maintain the status quo by pressuring workers to accept exploitative terms and behave in subservient ways, but they also help migrants with settling into urban areas, bargaining and job-switching for better working conditions.
Brokers offer a route through which migrants can negotiate with employers, an otherwise thankless task. Unlike formal agencies, informal brokers helped employers with recommendations on character and behaviour, an aspect regarded as very important by women who were recruiting another female to work in their home.
Lessons for policy
These two very different examples show clear similarities. Migrants and employers are reluctant to engage with the formal system and can have a strong preference for informal brokers who they trust. Informal brokers are also cheaper. In Ghana, employers are charged a non-refundable 250 Ghanaian cedis (about US$60) fee and workers 100 cedis in the official system. Informal brokers charge less than half and tailor their fees to each client.
Formal agencies are also not designed to help migrants with the things that they need most. Those seeking work away from home need shepherding through complex procedures, support and financing, and someone who can negotiate on their behalf. Work secured through brokers may pay less than work secured through formal channels, but getting into the labour market at all is a prize for many migrants.
Policy makers in Ghana, Bangladesh and beyond should recognise that brokerage is fuelled by tightening border controls and work permit systems, and by unwelcoming urban areas. Launching an attack on brokerage without easing migration barriers will not work. In fact, the way brokers work should encourage more migrant friendly practices such as cheap loans, flexible repayment and support with integration.
There are strong parallels between the situation we have described in the global South and the experience right now in Europe where governments are trying to eliminate brokers without providing workable alternatives to help migrants manage risk. All migration through brokers is labelled as trafficking. Examples of extreme exploitation are highlighted as governments seek to deter migrants. The role that brokers play in easing the path to economic migration and providing protection through the journey is rarely talked about.
The clear lesson from Ghana and Bangladesh is that a flourishing brokerage industry is a signal that formal channels are failing, or at least fail to meet the nuanced demands of migration and migrants. The demonisation of brokers as exploitative criminals is not entirely unfair, but it falls short if we are to genuinely understand the lives and motivations of migrants while legal and legitimate migration remains a privilege enjoyed by a rich and educated minority.