Friday 1 February 2019

ISIA’s support of Asian Migrant Workers in Morocco

This report examines the work of Instance de Solidarité avec les Immigrés Asiatiques (ISIA)[1] in representing and providing a unique safety net for Asian migrant workers whose employment as domestic- or service-sector workers, coupled with a lack of a formal immigration status in Morocco, renders them especially vulnerable to human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. The fact that ISIA has been successful, against the odds, in holding national and international authorities accountable to persistent human rights violations, suggests that ISIA’s work is an example of success against the odds. In posing the question: why is ISIA able to provide effective support to marginalised persons, this study aims to facilitate reflection on where systems of migration and local organising interact, and explore the types of intervention that could support further reductions, and possibly eliminate, the incidence of human trafficking amongst this population. 

Using Facebook and its associated Messenger app, ISIA has established a social network through which geographically dispersed migrant Asian workers remain in contact with one another using familiar languages such as English, Indonesian or Tagalog. This network allows victims of gross exploitation to be identified, counselled and seek help from ISIA – including rescue from abusive employers, providing refuge for weeks or even months at ISIA’s shelter in Salé (the twin city to Rabat – Morocco’s capital), advocacy in recovering seized passports from employers, and support in accessing local, national and international services, including the Police, hospitals, consular services, as well as repatriation through the International Organisation for Migration. These services are provided benevolently, with no charge to the victims of exploitation or human trafficking. At any given moment in time, there are between 5 and 10 women migrant workers living at the ISIA shelter, who have fled brutal working conditions, but cannot leave the country until such time as their passports can be recovered from their employers.

Morocco is a destination country for migrant workers from Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, whose nationals do not require a visa to enter the country. Tourist entry allows for stays of up to 3 months. Persons staying longer than this need to apply for an appropriate form of official residency, but there is no such category available for domestic workers. There is a high demand from wealthy Moroccans for Asian domestic workers (as well as for chefs in the restaurant sector) who have an excellent reputation (and English language skills). This, coupled with the absence of an official regulatory system governing the work done by Asian migrant workers, has allowed an unregulated system to develop.

Advertisement for domestic work in Morocco happens online through social networks where workers are attracted by the lack of an agency fee which is typically imposed by more regulated markets for Asian domestic workers such as Hong Kong or Singapore. Recruitment is handled by agencies without any legal status under the Moroccan Labour Code, and who facilitate the worker’s exit from countries such as the Philippines by providing false documentation. The domestic worker is then often trapped with the employer in the host country since the worker’s identity documents are retained either by the agency or by employer. The domestic workers are frequently unaware of their own status as undocumented migrants.

Moroccan employers typically pay the agency a fee as well as the worker’s travel costs. The practice of deceiving the domestic worker regarding their right to work and then retaining their passport, when coupled with exploitative employment practices such as non-payment of wages or abusive working conditions would meet the definition of “trafficking in persons” as set out in Article 3(a) of the United Nation’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons[2]. This practice is however widespread and even condoned by the Moroccan authorities[3]. Yet the landscape of migration has been evolving: in 2014, Morocco implemented a new policy on asylum and immigration known as the ‘nouvelle politique migratoire’ (NPM) resulting in the formal recognition of tens of thousands of hitherto undocumented sub-Saharan migrants.  As a result, Morocco gained significant international recognition as seen by the country’s recent hosting of the United Nation’s adoption of Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in 2018. However, the ongoing absence of regulation covering the employment of Asian domestic workers – who remain undocumented – remains a significant facilitating factor of human trafficking in the country.

ISIA was founded by Hayat Baraho and her husband Ismail El Ammari, both health care professionals with the Sale hospital. A fluent English speaker, Hayat previously worked as a nurse in the Middle East where she also came into contact with the difficulties experienced by migrant workers from Asia.  Having previously led the efforts to organise Asian domestic workers within a union, Hayat was particularly affected by the government of Morocco’s treatment of Asian domestic workers following the introduction of the NPM, whose status and protections barely changed and who remain extremely vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking. As a Moroccan national with a strong network of relationships within the community, Hayat can achieve outcomes unavailable to most Asian migrant workers. As such ISIA facilitates transport to the shelter and access to health care services, as well as reporting incidents of human trafficking to the Police and Judicial authorities.

Since 2012, Hayat has successful recovered dozens of sequestered passports thus facilitating the repatriation of the victims. As a woman, she is able to establish an honest and trusting relationship with the mainly female population of Asian domestic workers, and they in turn are able to share their stories of abuse and exploitation which otherwise would remain untold. As a leader, Hayat has direct access to influencers within Morocco’s institutional structures, including the CNDH, government ministries and embassies, as well as the trade union movement.

ISIA is at a critical juncture and the organisation needs support to develop:
  1. Service provision for cases of abuse and human trafficking; 
  2. Awareness and protection of the human rights of Asian domestic workers;
  3. Informal mechanisms to reduce or eliminate the incidence of human trafficking; and
  4. Preparation of witness statements in Arabic to allow the authorities to initiate judicial proceedings on behalf of the victims of human trafficking and violence.
As the organisation’s first priority, ISIA has developed effective mechanisms to identify and extract abused domestic workers from situations of human trafficking and abuse. The challenge for the organisation is absorbing the costs of providing shelter to these women, who often remain for weeks or months before their passports can be recovered and return travel organised. The costs involved are benevolently borne by Hayat and Ismail, reflecting both the precarious nature of domestic work and the difficulty of establishing a formal structure to represent undocumented workers. Help in securing other sources of funding for ISIA’s daily operation and service provision is the most urgent priority.

Building awareness of the rights of Asian migrants presents the challenge that a contract for employment as a domestic worker is currently unlikely to be approved by the Ministry of Labour – a prerequisite to applying for a residency permit. Nonetheless, since legislation regulating domestic work[4] came into force on 2 October 2018, the establishment of legally enforceable minimum standards of employment should be seen as an opportunity to educate both employer and employee of their mutual rights and obligations. This is information which, with quite limited support, could easily be made accessible to Asian domestic workers via the social networks established by ISIA.

Over the years that ISIA has been operating, the recruitment agencies of Asian domestic workers have frequently attempted to discredit and undermine the work done by Hayat and her husband with targeted campaigns of misinformation and smears. There are however encouraging signs that these agencies might be persuaded to find a negotiated solution, or failing that a BATNA[5]. Support from experienced mediators could allow ISIA to establish employment arrangements for Asian domestic workers through a code of practice or similar mechanism that would help reduce or even eliminate the incidence of human trafficking among Asian domestic workers in Morocco. 

For more information about how to support ISIA, please contact Hayat Baraho on + 212 6 67 74 01 81, or by email at

This report was authored on 26 January 2019 by Michael Schwaabe, a development manager with over 25 years of experience working in support of workers’ rights and close to 10 years specific experience of supporting migrant worker rights organisations in Morocco. Michael can be contacted by email at

[3] Author interview, 22 Feb 2017
[5] Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement, Fisher and William (1981)

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