Work is central to a whole host of other rights, providing the basis for a safe, healthy and dignified existence. For members of minorities, indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups such as migrants, however, work is all too often an arena of discrimination, abuse and exploitation. From poor pay and dangerous working conditions to a lack of basic labour protections and barriers to promotion, the challenges they face are wide ranging and often entangled in other areas of inequality, such as access to education.
It is also the case that work, besides reflecting broader patterns of exclusion, can serve to reinforce them. This is especially evident in the persistence of caste-based hierarchies in countries such as India, where Dalits and other stigmatized groups still make up the majority of workers in public sanitation and other sectors traditionally seen as ‘unclean’. Occupations such as these, frequently labelled dirty, dangerous and demeaning, serve to perpetuate the false narrative of caste supremacy long after the system was officially abolished. However, criminalization in law can only achieve so much without a wider societal transformation. This is evident in Mauritania, for example, where the criminalization of slavery has not resulted in true equality for the Haratine population, many of whom are still trapped in a state of servitude with their former masters.
The increasing integration of the world economy, besides creating new pressures for communities already contending with the threat of expropriation and labour exploitation, has had other troubling implications. In particular, as production and supply chains have become increasingly globalized, so too has the moral culpability associated with labour exploitation. In China, where the coercion of tens of thousands of Uyghurs as workers in factories has attracted international condemnation, a large proportion of the cotton products exported from the country and sold across the world is tainted by forced labour – in the process implicating western governments, companies and consumers who would never countenance these practices in their own countries.
Migration, whether through formal channels or undocumented, is also interlinked with structural inequalities that are in many instances consciously designed by governments to create a ready supply of cheap and disempowered labour. This situation is already well documented in Gulf countries such as Qatar, where hundreds of thousands of migrants are recruited with exploitative contracts to work in constructing the country’s shifting cityscape, including stadiums and other facilities built for the 2022 World Cup. While Qatar adopted laws to dismantle the notorious kafala system in 2020, implementation and enforcement remain weak. In Canada, too, under the so-called Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, Canada imports tens of thousands of workers every year from Mexico and the Caribbean to work in the agricultural sector. Locked in a state of precarity by a policy framework that denies them basic labour protections and keeps them dependent on the goodwill of their employers, their situation has been compared to a modern form of indentureship. For migrants without a formal legal status, however, the risk of abuse and exploitation is even more acute. In the infamous Sea of Plastic in southern Spain, for example, where thousands of migrants toil in polythene hothouses to provide Europe with a cheap and plentiful supply of fruit and vegetables, the undocumented status of many migrants means they have little recourse to justice or alternative work opportunities in the event of unpaid wages, excessive working hours or other rights violations.
A common challenge faced by marginalized workers worldwide is that, even in the midst of an economic boom, their working conditions and pay do not necessarily improve: in fact, increased demand and productivity may drive further attrition of their own rights and welfare. But while development programmes and investments often fail to deliver promises of employment for minorities and indigenous peoples, and may even serve to marginalize them further from these opportunities, another path is possible. This is illustrated, for example, in the tourism sector – an industry often associated with discrimination, exclusion and even exploitative stereotyping of local cultures and beliefs – where indigenous-led models designed around sustainability, traditions and the empowerment of community members are gaining in popularity. As in other areas of work, proper representation and equitable participation are key.
Despite progress, discrimination towards members of minorities and indigenous peoples, particularly women, is widespread and not only manifested in unregulated parts of the economy, such as the informal sector, but also in academia, technology and other knowledge-based economies. Limited representation in these industries, especially at senior levels, can often occur despite legal assurances of equality and the avowed commitment of employers themselves to remove ‘glass ceilings’ (based on gender, religion or ethnicity) in their recruitment practices. This demonstrates the need for a wider process of transformation, addressing entrenched social stigma and other drivers of exclusion, to ensure equitable work and employment opportunities for all.
This is not to deny the power and urgency of labour activism. In the United 11 States, for instance, Black American and Latinx workers are disproportionately represented in unions and other labour organizations currently mobilizing for higher wages, sick leave and other basic protections from employers like Amazon. These activities have delivered concrete victories against exploitative practices such as ‘zero hours’ contracts that have adversely affected the most marginalized workers, many of whom belong to minorities and indigenous peoples. But societies also need to commit to addressing the broader challenges these communities face, such as limited access to education and reskilling, that contribute to their disenfranchisement in the world of work. In countries such as Germany, for example, refugees and civil society are working together to expand opportunities in the digital economy through training and workshops.
A truly fair and inclusive labour market would deliver a wide range of economic and societal benefits, creating opportunities for marginalized workers to participate fully in the formal economy with the same rights, protections and support as those enjoyed by others, guaranteed by international law. Beyond this, however, it has the potential to deliver lasting change to the situation of minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants worldwide, ensuring they receive a proper share of any economic gains in their countries and can participate fully in public life.
- Develop a comprehensive approach to addressing obstacles to employment for excluded communities, including lack of education, language barriers and limited access to digital skills: Enhancing access to training and reskilling opportunities, as well as improving educational outcomes in schools and universities, are crucial to the realization of more equitable work conditions for all. For minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants, in particular, there may be additional barriers such as language, unrecognized qualifications and limited digital literacy that may constrain entry into some employment sectors.
- Enforce anti-discrimination legislation to ensure that work-related discrimination is effectively prohibited: Public and private employers alike should follow clear legal protocols to guarantee equitable treatment in the recruitment and working conditions of their employees, with transparent and accessible measures in place for reporting, investigating and penalizing incidents of discrimination at work. Independent complaints procedures must be open to all workers regardless of their employment or migration status. Particular attention must be paid to addressing the intersectional discrimination faced in the workplace by marginalized groups, including women, LGBTQ+ persons and persons with disabilities, belonging to minorities and indigenous peoples.
- Support the development of comprehensive and disaggregated data collection on minority and indigenous representation in different economic sectors: To develop a clear picture of work-based inequalities, governments and employers should commit to properly assessing the relative share of community members in key sectors such as law, politics, public services and business, particularly at a senior level. These indicators should include an intersectional focus on other areas of discrimination, such as gender, age and disability, and be used to guide the rollout of targeted policies to address the obstacles faced by marginalised groups.
- Strengthen research on conditions in informal and wage-based work, with a particular focus on the situation of members of marginalized communities such as minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants: The invisibility of much informal sector activity, sometimes as a direct result of its criminalization by authorities, can create an enabling environment for the abuse and exploitation of workers who have few livelihood alternatives or options to pursue justice in the event of abuse.
- Recognize the historic and deep-seated nature of slavery and caste-based discrimination: While slavery and caste-based discrimination are legally prohibited across the world, their persistence or reconfiguration as other forms of exploitation, including indentured servitude, demonstrates the need for a wider societal transformation to address their lasting legacy in many countries. This 13 means, besides improving access to education and other services, challenging hate speech and social prejudice within dominant communities.
- Ensure international migration regimes are fully in line with international human rights law, including the right to decent, safe and equitable employment: Many countries continue to use restrictive and exploitative migration frameworks to facilitate the entry of foreign workers while evading their legal and moral responsibility to protect their human rights, with some explicitly designed to disempower migrants as a cheap and expendable labour force. Governments should revise these policies to ensure that foreign workers have the same rights as those enjoyed by resident citizens, in line with international law.
- Establish clear protocols of accountability for human rights violations throughout global supply chains, including the exploitation of minority and indigenous labour: At present, a gap separates the enforcement of domestic legal prohibitions on labour abuses from the continued flow of imported goods produced through forced labour in other countries. Governments, companies and consumers need to work together to ensure more effective oversight of the production of clothing, technological devices and other items at every stage, with clear and enforceable penalties for any infractions along the chain.
- Respect the existence of traditional livelihoods and their role in the lives of minorities and indigenous peoples: Development programmes, particularly those with the potential to affect minority and indigenous communities, should ensure that their employment and income-generating options are properly understood and protected through meaningful consultation. This requires placing free, prior and informed consent at the heart of any process affecting indigenous peoples, including the creation of conservation areas: steps should be taken to ensure that community members are able to maintain traditional practices and are not excluded from their ancestral lands.
Photo: Construction workers walking inside the Lusail Stadium while it is under construction for the 2022 FIFA football World Cup. In preparation for the tournament, Qatar spent billions of dollars on an infrastructure programme that requires vast numbers of migrant workers, but its treatment of migrants has raised concern internationally. Lusail, Qatar. Credit: Adam Davy / Alamy.