Labour exploitation, trafficking and migrant health

This new report, published by International Organisation for Migration (IOM), was led by Dr Cathy Zimmerman and authored by Dr Ana Maria Buller and Hanni Stoklosa of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

There are an estimated 232 million international migrants and 740 million internal migrants worldwide, most of whom are in search of work. Global assessments also suggest that a substantial proportion of labour migrants ends up in situations of extreme exploitation, sometimes formally identified as victims of human trafficking.

“Labour Exploitation, Trafficking and Migrant Health: Multi-country Findings on the Health Risks and Consequences of Migrant and Trafficked Workers” is among the first studies to explore and compare the influence of occupational and other risk exposures on people’s health and well-being and compare the experiences of migrant workers and victims of trafficking across sectors and regions.


This multiregional qualitative study (with 71 participants) focuses on:

  • the textile sector in Argentina
  • artisanal gold-mining in Peru
  • the construction sector in Kazakhstan

It found important commonalities in the health hazards and financial, social and legal challenges across sectors and regions. 18 participants were formally identified victims of trafficking and 53 were migrant workers. Many of the abuses reported by victims of trafficking were also reported by numerous migrant workers who were not identified as victims of trafficking.

The research found that people in situations of extreme exploitation (such as labour trafficking) face not only occupational health risks, but also harm due to their terrible living conditions

IOM’s Rosilyne Borland, Regional Migrant Rights and Vulnerable Groups Specialist and a co-author of the research

Those interviewed for the study were commonly recruited by family and community networks, and travelled for work (within their own country or internationally) as part of a general strategy to improve their lives. Most had little or no information about the conditions of the work before they travelled and some were deceived or misled, particularly those who ended up in trafficking situations.

The study also showed that migrants faced gruelling hours, risky conditions, and had to ‘learn on the job’ how to use machinery, chemicals and other dangerous materials. Many were hurt while working and few were able to get medical care.

As you might expect, our study showed that people who were identified as trafficked worked longer hours, experienced more violence, had less freedom of movement, and were more likely to be deceived by recruiters. But the research also shows that the larger population of migrant workers lived and worked in similar conditions, with similar health risks and consequences, even if not identified as trafficked.

Rosilyne Borland, IOM

The study has implications for policy-makers, donors, and service providers, and includes concrete recommendations. But perhaps its most important contribution is to share the stories of the people themselves.

The research gives voice to the experiences of victims of trafficking and migrant workers who have suffered under unthinkable conditions, making their experience visible to those working on these topics.

Vanesa Vaca, Project Assistant at the IOM Regional Office and local coordinator for the study in Latin America

Further research priorities

  • Conduct quantitative surveys to identify broader patterns of migration risk, protective factors and decision-making, migrant health and health service access and use
  • Carry out longitudinal research to identify migrants’ long-term health needs
  • Conduct intervention research to develop evidence-based strategies to improve migrant worker conditions, especially:
    • protection and response mechanisms
    • outreach clinics for health and legal services
    • labour inspections of registered and irregular enterprises
    • worker coalitions
    • victim-centred law enforcement responses

It is urgent to understand present-day occupational health and safety risks, forms of abuse and exploitation in different sectors and common hazardous working and living conditions to improve prevention and response strategies.

Watch Rosilyne Borlane’s live Facebook interview.

Watch Vanesa Vaca’s live Facebook interview (in Spanish).

Read Unaware of rights, exploited migrant and trafficked workers suffer in silence – research – Thomson Reuters news story

Read an overview of our research in this field.

See a resource page with links to a range of papers and reports on our work.

Image: Construction. Image credit: Bernardo Aldana via Flickr

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