Migrant Workers

Accurate data on global migration is difficult to obtain because many migrant workers lack official status. There were 223 million international migrants in 2015, of which about two-thirds could be classed as workers. This figure excludes 21 million refugees, whose movement is regarded as forced rather than voluntary. This statistic for total migrants predates the 2016 European crisis, despite being published by the International Organization for Migration towards the end of 2017.

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, the undercurrent of populist xenophobic rhetoric that springs from perception that migrants compete for scarce jobs and housing, whilst undermining national cultural identity.

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

The International Organization for Migration, the leading UN agency 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.

Nonetheless, many nation states tend to pursue policies which treat migrant labour as economic cannon fodder, often downgrading social protection and indulging discriminatory practices of unscrupulous employers. 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 tensions over migration reached a crescendo in 2016 when mass movements from war-torn Middle East and poverty-stricken sub-Saharan Africa headed for European destinations. Amidst Europe’s failure to respond to the influx of over a million refugees and migrant workers, over 5,000 people met their deaths in that year whilst attempting sea crossings in conditions that echoed horrors of the slave trade.

The global political reverberations have not yet been resolved. Responses inspired by the Trump administration envisage the construction of border fences of unimaginable length and expense. The mainstream Europeans prefer to lavish unprecedented packages of foreign aid on countries in key locations who might be able to dissuade migrants from moving further; these EU Partnership Frameworks include €6 billion for Turkey, €1.9 billion for an Africa Trust Fund, the price of securing limits to migration.

However potent the influence of migration on the US Presidential election and on the UK vote to withdraw from the European Union, global leaders recognise the powerful long term drivers of supply of migrant labour – global inequality, climate change and the needs of ageing populations in richer countries. They have been persuaded by these contrasting realities to commit to a Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration by 2018. Preliminary negotiations have not yet yielded any significant breakthrough.

Rights of Migrant Workers
Migrant workers have little recourse to international law to enforce their rights. Human rights campaigners acknowledge that the right to work in a foreign country does not equate with immediate access to the full benefits of citizenship. Their efforts focus on establishing minimum standards of working and living conditions, consistent with the principles of non-discrimination.

The initial step towards this goal was achieved in 1990 with the adoption by the UN of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, also known as the Migrant Workers’ Convention. It tackles every stage of the migration process and also stipulates that some rights should be extended to undocumented migrants.

Although the Convention entered into force in 2003, not one of the major destination states has ratified it. In consequence, migrant workers remain at the mercy of national immigration and labour laws which often provide little defence against discrimination and exploitation. Human rights scandals such as the abuse of female domestic workers in the Middle East are commonplace.

An important informal source of finance for the poorest countries is the value of remittance payments sent by migrant workers to their families. According to the World Bank, this value reached $574 billion in 2016, over four times the total amount of foreign aid for that year.

For many of the world’s poorest countries, remittances sent by migrant workers represent a significant percentage of GDP and the greatest source of foreign currency. In Nepal, the world’s most remittance-dependent country, a large proportion of the work force is absent, sending remittances amounting to 31% of GDP.

Remittances have the advantage over foreign aid of reaching households directly, cutting out any losses through corruption or unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. On the other hand, remittances cannot be channelled into strategic national development projects.


more Migration briefings (updated March 2018)