Globalisation and Migrant Workers

updated May 2016

Modern communications not only drive the forces of globalisation but also ensure that awareness of widening global inequality is ever more intense. The dream of relocating from a poorer to a richer country is a natural and inevitable human response.

However, ideological passion for free movement of goods, capital and information is not extended to people. Our contemporary world sees the construction of border fences of unimaginable length and expense, political parties founded on anti-immigration slogans and families meeting their deaths whilst attempting journeys which echo horrors of the slave trade. As many as 5,400 migrants worldwide may have died in transit in 2015.

The 21st century utopian vision of humanity’s progress towards a world without borders, amply justified by advances in technology, is running the gauntlet of populist politics. However, this is unlikely to extinguish the desire for mobility of labour, given the powerful long term drivers of global inequality, climate change and the needs of ageing populations in richer countries.

Accurate data on global migration is difficult to obtain because many migrant workers lack official status. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in 2015 there were were 244 million international migrants. Only a third of total migrants have moved from the “south” to the “north”. The choice of destination is greatly constrained by the expense of travel and official permit fees.  About 40% of all international economic migrants head for the nearest country.

Demand for migrant labour is determined by the extent to which a domestic workforce is unable or unwilling to meet the needs of its national economy. There may be shortages of skills or, more typically, vacancies arise in jobs rejected by the local population, often described as “3D” (dirty, dangerous and difficult).

Globalisation has commoditised labour migration, notably in many Middle Eastern countries which are almost totally dependent on Asian migrants for 3D jobs rejected by nationals. Airlines construct their schedules to serve the routes taken by migrants; the receiving countries build infrastructure not just to house foreign labour but also to accommodate cultural needs.

These formal channels of migration can never provide a perfect match with the global supply of labour. Many aspiring workers choose to take their chance as “undocumented” migrants, entering a country by overstaying a visa or by crossing an unprotected border.

Work is often to be found thanks to opportunist employers who ask no questions in return for a pliant labour force, unable to demand the protection of minimum standards of pay and conditions. The UN estimates that there are 20-30 million undocumented global migrants, including 11.3 million in the US.

Many migrant workers have greatly improved their fortunes, especially in accessing higher standards of health and education for their children. However, too many experience the unacceptable face of international migration, further evidence of globalisation’s tendency to generate both winners and losers.

Anxious to create a flexible labour supply and to avoid social costs, the receiving country often extends only minimum protection to workers, whilst refusing entry to family members. Weak labour laws encourage unscrupulous employers to withhold wages, confiscate identity documents and deny reasonable time off work. Such measures respond to the public perception that migrants compete for scarce jobs and housing, whilst undermining national cultural identity, evidenced in the rise of populist xenophobic rhetoric.

The International Organization for Migration, the leading intergovernmental body working in this field, has criticised politicians and media for their widespread failure to communicate either the benefits of migrant labour or the relevance of multicultural societies in the modern era of globalisation.

Instead, nation states tend to pursue policies which treat migrant labour as economic cannon fodder. Immigration policy ebbs and flows in response to perceived signals from domestic labour markets, a far cry from altruistic concerns for individual rights or global poverty reduction.


International Migration – this animation offers an overview, from weareedeos.

South Africa: Xenophobic violence against migrant workers spreads, from BBC News

more Globalisation briefings
Global Governance
Winners and Losers
International Development Model
Globalisation and Environmental Limits
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