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Protecting migrant workers’ rights worldwide

by Guy Ryder

The High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development held in New York held on Oct. 3 and 4 was a good opportunity to address a pressing issue: how to manage global labor migration flows and to ensure that they have a positive impact on both sending and destination countries.

There are an estimated 232 million migrants worldwide and their numbers are growing. This is due to several reasons, including: changing demographic trends, rising economic inequalities, increased political instability and unforeseen environmental crises.

Most migrants don’t leave their home countries out of choice but out of necessity. The lack of decent jobs and income opportunities is usually what pushes them to migrate. Sadly this journey is all too often made in desperate and perilous conditions. And when they arrive in their new destination or even when they go back home, they are vulnerable to discrimination.

Women, young workers and those with low skills and in irregular situations are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. It is not unusual for migrant workers to be denied their fundamental rights at work, such as freedom of association, collective bargaining, nondiscrimination and minimum wages. In the worst cases, they may fall victim to forced labor and human trafficking.

Yet migrant workers play a key role in the economy. They buy goods and services, pay taxes and set up small businesses that create jobs. They also send money back home — over $400 billion sent to developing countries in 2012 — that can benefit their families and communities.

Given the current state of the world economy and its prospects for the future — with global unemployment expected to rise from the current 202 million to over 208 million by 2015 — migration flows are likely increase and become more complex.

This poses a tremendous challenge for the international community, but it also gives us a great opportunity to step up our efforts and change the way we approach migration.

We are now discussing the global development agenda that will come into place once the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) deadline passes in 2015. Migration must be central to that debate. We cannot abandon migrants to the fate that so many of them suffer, no one benefits from that.

What we need is nothing short of global action to protect the rights and interests of migrant workers. We don’t need to start from scratch. In 2006, the International Labor Organization adopted a multilateral framework that provides a set of nonbinding principles and guidelines for a rights-based approach to migration. It also includes examples of good practices that different countries have applied. This framework is a good starting point for a wider discussion.

We need to move beyond debates in terms of numbers, flows and remittances, and toward concrete measures — with international labor standards as their core — that will improve labor migration governance. In doing so, we need to involve labor ministries, as well as employers’ and workers’ organizations — the key actors of the real economy.

There is still too little being invested at national and regional levels to protect the rights of migrant workers, particularly in those economic sectors (such as agriculture, domestic work, construction) with higher risks recruitment processes, working conditions, wages and social security.

We need to recognize migrants’ qualifications and to ensure a better match between their skills and the jobs they do. This will avoid talents being wasted and employers’ demands going unfulfilled. We also need to build greater awareness of the positive contributions that migrants bring to destination countries.

Good labor migration policies can lead us towards a more equitable future. These policies include: reducing discrimination; supporting migrant workers to use remittances to create new jobs back home; improving their access to key labor market institutions, including minimum wages; and introducing schemes that allow workers to regularize their status.

When it comes to policies, we also need to know what works and under what circumstances. The results can help governments have a better understanding of the labor market and to reorient employment and migration policies to benefit all workers, not just migrants.

The meeting in New York was the perfect moment to start to talk about all this. So let’s get to work.

Guy Ryder is the International Labor Organization director general.