www.seefar.org 

February 2016 

MODERN SLAVERY IN 
EAST ASIA 

Protecting  the  rights  and  promoting  the  autonomy  of  domestic 
migrant workers from Indonesia and the Philippines 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

This publication is distributed under the Creative Commons 

Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license:

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

About

Findings

Context

Protecting rights and promoting 

autonomy of migrant domestic workers 

 

OVER 

4,000

 

respondents

Average length of service 4.5 yrs (Filipinos) 

and 4 yrs (Indonesia)

Exploitation and rights violations occur during all phases of labour migration

Indonesians and Filipinos are 

overseas at any given point as 

migrant domestic workers

There is a misconception between
foreigners and migrants alike that
 women who choose to migrate 
to work overseas are saving and 
accumulating wealth. This is not 
the case. They are participating 
in an overseas labour market to 
maintain a subsistence income. 

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

Hong Kong 

Indonesia

Philippines

Singapore

4

  countries

of the world’s estimated 

52 Million domestic workers

in Asia Pacific.

40

%

12 MONTH

research study

More than 

2 Million

have identity and travel 

documents 

confiscated 

suffer 

limited freedom

 of 

movement

experienced 

exploitation

 

during the 

recruitment process

Percent

An average worker  spends 

4 months of a

 

2 year 

contract 

paying back i

nitial 

debts

Economically 

vulnerable  

80%

are women

32

71

Percent

63%

 of respondents faced 

exploitive practices while 

working abroad

Migrate for 

economic reasons 

97

%

49

Percent

Returned Migrants still want 
to 

go back overseas

 

77

Percent

Overcoming 

misconceptions

 

 

 

 
 
 

info@seefar.org • www.seefar.org

 

Contents 

Executive Summary ................................................................................................. i 

Background ........................................................................................................... i 
Key Findings .......................................................................................................... i 
Recommendations ................................................................................................. iv 
A Note on Methods ................................................................................................ iv 

Introduction ........................................................................................................... 1 

Background and Rationale ..................................................................................... 3 

Method ................................................................................................................... 5 

Samples ............................................................................................................... 5 

Prevalence of Modern Slavery .............................................................................. 10 

Indicators of Modern Slavery ................................................................................. 10 
Prevalence of Exploitation During Recruitment ........................................................ 10 
Prevalence of Exploitation During Work and Life Abroad .......................................... 11 
Worst Problems According to Migrants ................................................................... 11 

Profiles and Motivations ....................................................................................... 12 

Profiles of Migrant Domestic Workers ..................................................................... 12 
Migration Decisions: Motivations and Influences ..................................................... 13 
Knowledge and Perceptions about Working Abroad ................................................. 18 

Getting into Debt .................................................................................................. 20 

The Role of Recruiters .......................................................................................... 20 
Salary Manipulation by Employers .......................................................................... 29 

Abuse of Migrant Domestic Workers .................................................................... 31 

Abuse by Recruiters in Sending Countries ............................................................... 31 
Abuse by Employment Agencies in Destination Countries ......................................... 32 
Abuse by Employers in Destination Countries .......................................................... 33 

Executive Summary

Background

Modern slavery

1

 is a major global issue, with 

particular relevance in Asia. 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 – particularly 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. Unique to this research was the 

focus 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.

Key Findings

The research found that exploitation and rights 

violations occur during all phases of their 

migration. The prevalence of practices associated 

with 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. 

In relation to recruitment practices in Indonesia 

and the Philippines, 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. 

ILO operational definition of forced 
labor / modern slavery

Work for which a person has not 
offered him or herself voluntarily 
and which is performed under the 
menace of any penalty applied by 
an employer or a third party to the 
worker. The coercion may take place 
during the worker’s recruitment 
process to force him or her to 
accept the job or, once the person 
is working, to force him/her to do 
tasks that were not part of what was 
agreed at the time of recruitment 
or to prevent him/her from leaving  
the job.

1

For the purpose of this research, the definition of ‘modern slavery’ is that defined by the authority on international 

labor issues, the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Visualizing the cycle of common problems experienced by 

migrant domestic workers

Before recruitment 
& training

 

While 
working abroad 

During recruitment 

& training 

Termination of  

contract and return home 

Lack of knowledge  

by migrant workers 

before signing contract 

and incurring debt

Lack of government 

protection and 

reintegration programs 

upon return

Exploitation and 

coercion by recruiters 

in sending countries

Abuse and over- 

charging by 

employment agencies 

& employers abroad

1

4

2

3

71% of respondents experienced

 problems during recruitment

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.

Name of the problem during recruitment

Indonesians

Fillopinos

Combined

Confinement in the recruitment facility  

or confiscation of documents

64%

54%

59%

False information regarding nature of the work, 

contract, wages or living/working conditions

25%

25%

25%

verbal, physical or sexual threats and abuse

11%

5%

8%

63% of respondents faced exploitative  

practices working abroad

Although the research found few cases of extreme abuse, 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.

Nature of the problem  

(While working abroad)

Singapore

Hong Kong

Combined

Restrictions on movement and 

communications

67%

26%

45%

Difficult working and living conditions

54%

24%

38%

Verbal, physical or sexual threats and abuse

26%

20%

23%

Mistreatment of migrant domestic workers is a regional rather than a national issue. In destination 

countries, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, respondents tended to have similar experiences with 

employers and employment agencies, indicating that many problems identified from this research cannot 

be attributed to any one home country. 

A migrant domestic worker spends 4 months  

of a 24 month contract repaying debts 

Many workers accumulate a migration debt, some of them unknowingly. On average, debts ranged 

between USD1,600 and 1,800 per person. 

Hong Kong

Singapore

Average  

Monthly salary

523

380

Averaged debt (USD)

1845

1653

Average  

repayment time

3-6 months 

3-6 months

Restrictions on rights in destination countries 

caused the respondents to seek assistance from 

their employment agents, to whom they pay fees 

that seem disproportionate when compared to 

the salary and services received. As a result, many 

accumulate more debt or continue to 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. 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.

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. Agencies in destination countries 

continue to profit by overcharging migrant workers 

for their services. Employers exploit the economic 

and psychological vulnerability of their employees 

by placing excessive demands and – in some cases 

– expecting workers to pay for the employer’s share 

of the recruitment cost. 

On the other hand, there seems to be a positive 

relation between more rights and a better situation 

for migrant domestic workers. In our data, the 

prevalence of many types of abuse, rights violations 

and other problems reported by migrant domestic 

workers are significantly lower in Hong Kong than 

in Singapore. Hong Kong grants workers more 

rights, including a minimum wage and the right 

to unionize. Nevertheless, the prevalence rates 

measured in Hong Kong tell us that more steps 

need to be taken to protect vulnerable workers  

and improve migration outcomes on all levels, 

including positive economic impact. 

Recommendations

Our research puts new numbers on the 

prevalence of modern slavery in Asia amongst 

domestic workers. It also highlights the need 

for an integrated approach in response. The 

recommendations in this report require action 

by stakeholders on multiple levels, from 

national and regional government bodies, to the 

business community, to migrant networks. Key 

recommendations are of this report are categorized 

into four areas:

•  

Recruitment:

 Investing in 

rights awareness  

    campaigns 

that target both workers and  

    employers; 

Enhancing transparency

 around  

    migration opportunities, risks and costs by  

    investing in accessible and relevant  

    information sources.

  Debt: 

Improving and implementing rules and  

    regulations

 for workers, recruiters and 

    employers, especially those targeting debt  

    reduction and freedom of choice; 

Reducing  

    recruitment costs and debt 

through more ethical  

    and economically sensible recruitment practices.

  Exploitation: 

Monitoring and vetting of agencies

  

    by the government, between agencies, and by  

    migrant workers themselves.

  Return to country: 

Increasing financial planning  

    capacity

 for workers and their families to achieve  

    positive economic outcomes by making  

    necessary tools and trainings available.

A Note on Methods

Surveying took place during seven months 

with more than 4,000 respondents in four 

countries – Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines 

and Singapore. In each country, comparable, 

comprehensive questionnaires were used. In this 

report, where we refer to “significance” or present 

statistical analysis, we are using a confidence level 

of 95%.

In designing our survey instrument, we were 

inspired by the definition of modern slavery 

provided by the ILO. We used their 2009 and 2012 

“operational definitions to measure forced labour 

of adults” as an inspiration to design questionnaires 

that would pick up as many indicators of abuse and 

exploitation as possible. However, our methods 

differ from the ILO measurement framework, which 

is still under revision. 

Our research aims to:

• 

 Measure a wider range of abuses and  

    problematic areas, in order to understand the  

    breadth of harmful practices that lead to various  

    degrees of labour exploitation.

  Analyze the effects of labour exploitation,  

    including connections between human rights  

    violations and economic development.

  Include the migrant perspective on what they  

    consider to be their biggest problems, obstacles,  

    and concrete solutions to their problems.