Hesperian Health Guides

Make migrants part of worker movements

Every day 20,000 people visit the HealthWiki for lifesaving health information. A gift of just $5 helps make this possible!

Make a giftMake a gift to support this essential health information people depend on.

HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > Chapter 23: Workers who migrate > Make migrants part of worker movements

Migrant workers are often exposed to some of the worst conditions of work, from poverty wages and violence to fear of deportation, especially if they do not have legal documents. When migrant workers are unorganized, employers think they can pay all workers less. However, when unions and other worker organizations fight for the rights of migrant workers they are helping to eliminate these conditions and forcing their governments to enforce labor laws and standards for all workers.

For example, labor rights groups in the United States, where many workers migrate for jobs, campaign for the rights of migrant workers on International Workers Day, May 1 (also known as May Day). On May Day they launch campaigns to bring awareness to the working conditions of migrant workers and to demand that the government of the United States give full rights to these workers, including access to education, medical care, and housing.

Unions are strengthened when they make an effort to include migrant workers in workplace organizing and social activities. When workers of different ethnic or language groups are used to working together, the boss cannot use racism or rivalry between groups to divide and weaken the union. By communicating in the languages of the workers in a factory, the union can make sure that everyone knows what is going on and that workers have a way to pass information back to the union. And when a union stands up for equality and people’s rights both inside and outside the workplace, it builds loyalty, respect, and support that can help it win struggles for its members into the future.

a group of men and women holding signs reading, "ONE BIG UNION" AND "No person is illegal"; at the front of the crowd is a large banner.
Rights for ALL Workers
Migrant Burmese workers’ union in Thailand

Sandar crossed the border from Burma into Thailand to work for the Value Trend Company garment factory in Mae Sot. The workers were paid less than half as much as Thai workers, even though they were doing the same amount of work. And although all the workers had work permits and were fully guaranteed labor rights according to Thai labor law, the employer kept the original copies of the workers’ permits. If the Burmese workers demanded their rights, they were fired, deported, or even murdered by police or gangsters. In a nearby factory, a male worker was killed and 3 women workers were raped as a warning to other workers to stop organizing.

Sandar was afraid of being deported or attacked, but she felt it was time to fight for her rights and the rights of her people. She began to talk one on one with other workers to find out what their problems were and if they were interested in fighting for better conditions. At the same time, she learned about worker and human rights through trainings organized by the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association (YCOWA), a union that supports and organizes Burmese workers in Thailand. She started holding secret meetings with other workers to tell them about the YCOWA union, and soon many workers joined. YCOWA organized workers to leave their jobs to demand better pay and working conditions. When 119 of them left together, the employer was really surprised. He had not thought the migrant workers would organize. The union stepped in to represent the workers in the negotiations with the owner. Through a well-planned campaign that involved the community and support from local and international organizations, the workers were able to win a new union contract with many improvements. The employer promised to pay them minimum wage, which was more than double what they had earned before, and higher overtime pay. He also returned their original work permits, so they could have control of their working lives.