empowering workers and survivors

Workers depicted should not be construed as victims of trafficking. 

Issara Institute's worker voice channels include a 24-hour multi-lingual helpline that was established by the founders almost 10 years ago, while they were in the UN.  In addition to running the helpline, Issara also runs other worker voice channels such as Facebook (which has over 200,000 followers across 3 languages), smartphone chat apps such as Line and Viber, and our Android app, Golden Dreams.  Issara is also the first NGO globally to trial unconditional cash transfers plus referral services for trafficking victims, to empower trafficked persons, giving them the knowledge, options, and resources they need to shape their own futures.

Pai Pai, Tum, Ko Htwe and Ko Myo were trafficked and held in conditions of forced labour on Thai fishing vessels. They, and many other victims, have voiced a desire to tell their stories and share their views of labour issues in Southeast Asia. Watch this video to learn more about their experiences, as well as Issara's Freedom of Choice program!


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For information for migrant workers on labour rights, government registration, processes, or to report a case or request assistance call:


Myanmar language:       1-800-010-180

Khmer language:            1-800-010-181

Lao and Thai language:  1-800-010-182

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Innovation in Victim Empowerment 

Through Issara's Freedom of Choice program, the organization is able to pilot innovative approaches in victim empowerment.  Beneficiaries of the program are supported with the widest range of options and resources, so they are able to make informed decisions about their recovery and their futures.


One such innovation to victim empowerment is the provision of unconditional cash transfers (UCTs) to trafficked persons.  UCT programs provide cash directly to beneficiaries to spend as they see fit, rather than providing in-kind material assistance or giving money to an aid organization for distribution.  UCTs have been used within international development  as a key economic empowerment tool and have been demonstrated to improve education and health outcomes, and alleviate poverty in various contexts.


Cash transfers are best utilized as a component of a "cash plus" package of assistance offered to trafficked persons, including legal assistance, healthcare, job placement services, and referrals and information about other social services and benefits.

When potential trafficking cases come to light, Issara Institute staff conduct a needs assessment to determine if the person was in a situation of human trafficking based on the criteria under international and Thai law. This provides the space for trafficked persons to identify their highest priority areas for spending the cash, and to develop a spending plan with guidance from Issara staff.  Beneficiaries of the program receive a series of unconditional cash transfers pegged to the minimum wage in Thailand.

Unconditional Cash Transfer pilot


Between 2015-2016, Issara ran an Unconditional Cash Transfer Pilot for trafficked persons, with a victim support fund supported by two progressive donors (Anesvad Foundation and Equitas Foundation) plus Issara Institute's global brand retailer business partners.


468 victims of trafficking were supported through the fund, and 174 of those received unconditional cash transfers. The purpose was to learn the real priorities and needs of trafficked persons by giving them the resources directly, to spend as they saw fit.  For example, many trafficked persons wished to remain in the destination country and continue working to earn back wages lost during trafficking, instead of returning home.  From a genuine understanding of trafficked persons' individual needs and priorities, service offerings by the referral partners could be adjusted to be more demand-driven. 

Upon completion of the pilot in 2016, an independent evaluation found that cash as a modality allows people to meet their needs themselves, with dignity.  The cash provided beneficiaries with breathing space from the economic pressures felt after trafficking, therefore presenting an opportunity to empower people by allowing them to start thinking for themselves again.  Beneficiaries interviewed as part of the evaluation explained that the range of services offered by Issara, in addition to the cash, such as legal aid and assistance finding a new job, provided the support and added confidence they needed to begin moving forward with their lives.


Beneficiaries of the program have described feeling 'free' for the first time in years, on having access to money and being able to make choices on how to spend it. 


'I felt so happy, I was finally able to send money home again to my 3 children in Myanmar, and to pay for the renewal of my work permit. Without this money, I would probably have been deported'.      -Mrs WM


'The first thing I did with the money when I received it was take it home and find a place to hide it. I couldn't believe it. I used the money to renew my work permit, and to find a place where my wife and I could live. After that I sent some home to my brothers in Myanmar, which I had wanted to do before but couldn't.'     -Mr. KZ 


Supporting Workers and Migrant Communities

Issara works with thousands of migrant workers each year, supporting them from the moment they contact us and we establish a relationship, through the process of providing assistance as needed. They may request help in changing employers, ensuring legal status, obtaining legal representation,  or planning next steps  - Issara assists workers based on their requests. 



In 2014, Mr. and Mrs. Aung (not real names), originally from Myanmar, left their country to find better work in Thailand.  Their transport was arranged through a Burmese broker to Samut Sakhon, Thailand.  They were told they would need to pay a small recruitment fee, and would be able to change jobs if they were not happy.  Instead, they were held in conditions of forced labour in a shrimp peeling shed for two years, working shifts from 2am to 8pm for below minimum wage, with very limited rest.  Others from the group who were indebted to the employer were physically beaten and abused.  While trapped in the peeling shed, Mrs. Aung gave birth to a baby boy.


Since their rescue, with support from pro bono lawyers arranged by Issara, workers from the peeling shed filed and won legal cases for compensation and damages for abuse suffered during the time they worked at the peeling shed.  Issara helped Mr. Aung and his family, and the others, get access to free health check-ups, safe accommodation in a new location, new bank accounts, and unconditional cash transfers.  Issara also coordinated with Operation Smile Foundation to provide a free operation for the couple’s newborn son, who was born with a cleft palate.  Issara also arranged new jobs for a number of the survivors, including Mr. Aung.  As of February 2020, Mr. Aung reports that life is good: he has been at the same workplace, where working conditions are good and he has been promoted; and, as a Golden Dreams Ambassador, he has been able to help many other workers.