Hesperian Health Guides

The right to organize

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HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > Chapter 23: Workers who migrate > The right to organize

Some governments and unions do not allow migrant workers to join unions. Local workers might feel migrant workers are not interested in organizing because they do not plan to stay in the area. But migrant workers can contribute to the collective effort and might even have helpful personal experience from organizing in their own countries.

Learn about your rights and resources

Each country has labor laws that affect migrant workers, even those who do not have legal papers. Learn about your rights from worker organizations, unions, other workers, the government, or research on the Internet. These might also be good places to find out what organizations can help you to get medical care, to learn the language, or, for example, if you get fired.

Wgthas black-un.png The rights of migrant workers Wgthas black-ilo.png

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to all people, including migrant workers.

The UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families says every migrant worker and every member of his or her family:

  • has the right to protection by the law.
  • will receive the same treatment as nationals regarding conditions of work (hours, pay, and overtime) and social security.
  • is entitled to cultural, religious, and freedom of association rights.
  • will be protected against violence, threats, intimidation, and forced labor.
  • has the right to join trade unions and the right to organize.

The ILO Conventions on Migration for Employment (No. 97) and Migrant Workers (No. 143) say governments should offer:

  • free assistance and information services to migrants.
  • facilities for the departure, journeys, and reception of migrants.
  • medical services for migrants and the members of their families.
  • the same labor and human rights as local workers.

The roles of the UN, ILO, and other international organizations that promote workers’ rights are explained in Appendix A.
5 people at a meeting where a list on a large piece of paper is taped to the wall.
Problems in the Factory
- No bathroom breaks
- Overtime
- Discrimination

Talk with other workers about common problems

Although there are things that may cause workers to experience the workplace differently, such as gender, age, and ethnicity, there are many dangers in the factory that affect all workers, such as low pay, unhealthy or unsafe conditions, and forced overtime.

Make time to talk with other workers about the problems they face. A problem that affects one person can easily become a problem that affects many.

Developing relationships with other workers in your factory can also help you feel less lonely and stressed. You can develop a resource guide from the information that each of you knows or a map that shows the dangerous areas of the city, stores to buy less costly goods, health centers, and police stations.

Empty Night, Not Alone

My name is Xiaomei and I moved to Shenzhen to work in a factory. I was very sad when I moved here. I didn’t have any friends and I didn’t want to tell my family about my problems because they would worry. I actually didn’t want to work in the factory at all. When I was growing up, I dreamed of working in a radio station. So when I moved here, I would go to the local radio station whenever I had free time and offer to help. One day, the radio host was sick so they asked me to host the show. I didn’t know what to talk about, so I started talking about my life in the factory. I talked about feeling lonely and the conditions in my factory, which were not good. The owners of the factory heard the show and fired me the very next day. I was really upset! But then the radio station owner told me that many people liked the show. When I told them I had been fired, they offered me a job.

My show is called "Empty Night, Not Alone" and it is a space for young migrant women workers to share their experiences and feel like they are "not alone," that someone understands the challenges of their lives, their joys and sorrows. We talk about worker rights and some of the resources available in Shenzhen, where to find internet cafés to connect with our families, where to learn the language, how to protect ourselves, and many other things.

Build a social organization

Many migrants move to a new place because they have family or friends who have already moved there. You can begin to get together on days off to share traditional foods from your region and discuss problems faced in the workplace, news from home, and how you might help family and friends left behind. Migrant associations provide a supportive place to socialize and often raise funds for projects back home, such as buying a community ambulance or helping a school. Working with your new community, you can organize for better conditions for yourself and other migrant workers while you nurture your connections to your culture and home.

Social centers for migrant workers

The National Workers’ Congress (NWC) in Sri Lanka opened union membership to migrant workers in 1995. But organizing migrant workers inside the export factories was no easy task because many were scared of organizing. The boss controlled their free time and since they lived and worked inside the factory compounds, they ended up working a lot. The boss had also threatened that if they joined the union they would be fired and sent back to their countries.

a man speaking.
It was at the NWC Friendship House that I first heard of trade unions. I had gone there to use the library, and found out that it was possible to take training courses there on workers’ rights. After 3 years I became a member of NWC and started organizing other workers.

To give migrant workers a safe space to explore organizing, NWC created "Friendship Houses." These spaces are located outside the factory compounds. Workers can go there to borrow books or magazines, talk to other workers, watch television, and find information about labor rights. The staff also organizes health trainings and invites workers to attend conversations about union organizing. They want to empower workers to take more control over their work lives and become leaders in their own factories.