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Yang provides insight into the mistreatment of migrant workers

January 20, 2023

International migrant workers are at major risk of suffering abuses from their employers. Migrants who work for private households as domestic workers (DWs) are considered especially vulnerable given that they live in their employers’ homes where they are shielded from public view. A significant minority of Filipino DWs report mistreatment by their household employers in Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong, with 8% and 7% respectively experiencing physical violence and 36% and 13% respectively not receiving salaries on time. 

The biggest obstacle governments face in protecting migrant workers is that the originating countries cannot directly implement public policies in workers’ destination countries. In a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Professor Dean Yang, along with Toman Barsbai, Vojtech Bartos, Victoria Licuanan, Andreas Steinmayr, and Erwin Tiongson, studied an intervention aimed at reducing mistreatment of international DWs that does not require governments changing public policies in destination nations. 

“We implemented a randomized controlled trial of a simple intervention: encouraging migrant workers to show a photo of their family while giving a small gift to their employer upon starting employment,” the authors noted. “Our sample is composed of nearly 2,000 Filipino women newly departing for work as DWs in Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong.”

The treatment ultimately had positive impacts on the relationship between migrant DWs and their employer across a range of dimensions. First, compared to the control group, treated migrant workers reported less mistreatment by their employers when measuring based on criteria such as verbal and physical abuse, working conditions, and timely salary payments. In addition, treated DWs reported higher satisfaction in their relationship with their employer. Finally, workers in the treatment group were more likely to remain working for the same employer after two years, and were less likely to return to the Philippines. 

The authors also pointed out how the intervention had notable effects for migrant workers’ family members back home. “The intervention led the DW’s household members (who remained behind in the Philippines) to have a more favorable view of international labor migration, thus affirming the DW’s assessment,” the authors said. “Household members of DWs in the intervention assess the effects of the migration of the DW on the household more positively, particularly in the domains of the household’s financial security, standard of living, education, family life, and social life.” 

Yang and his co-writers also implemented an additional online experiment to determine where the photo itself, the gift itself, or the combination of the two was responsible for the treatment effect. They discovered that the photo alone could explain the entirety of the treatment effect, such that a reduction in perceived social distance stemming from seeing the photo leads employers to be more generous towards their DW employees.

The authors conclude by pointing out the importance of an intervention such as this. “While it can be facilitated and encouraged by origin-country governments or NGOs, [interventions such as this] can actually be implemented unilaterally by migrants themselves due to its simplicity and low cost,” they note. “However, it is important to stress that such an intervention should not substitute for other policies aiming to reduce mistreatment of migrant workers, such as legal protections for workers in destination countries.”

Read the entirety of the paper, “Picture This: Social Distance and the Mistreatment of Migrant Workers,” on NBER.