Skip to navigation

Skip to main content


July 2004, Volume 11, Number 3

ILO on Migrants

The 92nd Conference of the International Labor Organization in June 2004 focused on migrant workers, reminding union, employer and government delegates that there have been many changes in labor-sending and labor-receiving countries since the ILO last approved migrant conventions in 1949 (97) and 1975 (143). There was a consensus that these ILO conventions still provide a useful guide to rights-based migration management.

Three factors promise more international migration: increased inequality between countries, improved communications and transportation, and settled migrants who can serve as anchors for newcomers. Aging populations, labor market de-regulation, and the expansion of health services has fueled the demand for migrants in richer labor-receiving countries, while low wages and un- and under-employment encourage especially young people in poorer countries to seek opportunities abroad. A rising share of migrants are irregular, making it hard to protect their rights and hard for sending and receiving countries to cooperate to equitably share the benefits of migration.

Just as globalization has made most of the world's countries active participants in global markets for goods and capital, so labor migration has spread from the concern of a few countries to the concern of many--virtually all of the world's 200 countries are labor senders, receivers, or transit countries, and many are all three. Immigration- deciding who can enter and stay in a country-- touches the heart of national sovereignty, but countries can learn from each other about what works best in admitting migrant workers, such as certification (government controls the border gate) versus attestation (employer controls the border gate) to determine if migrants are needed, which enforcement strategies persuade migrants and employers to abide by migration and employment laws, and how to deal with irregular migrants and their employers. Many temporary migrants become permanent residents, raising adjustment and integration issues.

The ILO's five-chapter report for the conference, "Towards A Fair Deal For Migrant Workers In The Global Economy," emphasized that labor migration is likely to increase, that migration can be a plus-plus relationship for sending and receiving countries, that some migrants currently work under abusive conditions, and that the ILO needs to examine why its migrant conventions and norms have not been ratified by many countries. Many sending countries stressed the benefits of migrants to receiving countries, including increased employment and output, and the benefits and costs to sending countries, which include jobs and remittances but also family separation and brain drain effects that arise from the loss of key workers.

Perhaps the central dilemma for a standards-setting body such as the ILO is what to do about the manner in which cross-border job-matching occurs. Instead of migrants crossing borders under bilateral agreements, with government agencies involved in sending and receiving countries, most migrants find jobs abroad with the help of private agents. These merchants of labor range from friends and family to smugglers and traffickers, and smuggler, migrant, and employer violations of migration laws are often accompanied by violations of labor, tax and other laws.

The final report of the meeting asked whether increased labor migration was a concern of employers, unions and governments (it was), what to do about exploitation and abuse of migrants (collect and share data and urge ratification and adherence to ILO conventions), how to promote national polices that protect migrants (workers urged a new international framework and norms, while employers and governments emphasized that migration policies and norms are determined nationally).

The Plan of Action calls on the ILO to develop a rights-based approach to migration management that is sensitive to labor market needs and the sovereign rights of countries to determine entries and stays. The ILO is to encourage lawful migration, and urge receiving countries to treat migrants like other workers. To do this, the ILO is to develop a non-binding multilateral framework for managing labor migration that recommends best practices and policies, identifies actions needed to gain adherence to international labor standards, provides technical assistance, strengthens social dialogue, and improves the knowledge base on trends in labor migration, conditions of migrant workers, and effective measures to protect migrant worker rights.

The activities to be undertaken under the framework by November 2005 include: assessing demographic and labor market trends in the global labor market; promoting "managed migration for employment" sensitive to aging populations that include bilateral agreements dealing with issues from admissions and family unification to social security; devoting special attention to recruitment agencies and Convention 181 and Recommendation 188; and promoting decent work for migrants that informs them of their rights and minimizes abuse and smuggling. The framework is also to deal with policies to combat irregular migration and to promote return migration, and to reduce the cost of remitting funds and increase their development payoff to migrant areas of origin.

In the special case of health and education professionals, the ILO is to investigate ethical recruitment via bilateral and multilateral agreements. The ILO should also pay special attention to the problems of workers in 3-D jobs, and of women, especially those employed as domestic helpers and in the informal economy. Finally, the ILO is to deal with integration to combat discrimination and xenophobia, portable social security benefits, and recognition of migrant credentials.

The ILO is to prepare and distribute a report on the implementation of international labor standards for migrants, and expand its technical assistance program to support gender-sensitive national migration policies and help governments to update their migrant-related laws, reduce emigration pressures and help countries to monitor migration-related labor trends with databases, and help governments to strengthen labor legislation and its enforcement. The ILO is to contribute to the global knowledge base on international migration for employment, develop models for best-practice labor migration, and collect data and conduct studies that anticipate the role of migrants in the global economy.

Perhaps the central dilemma for a rights-based organization such as the ILO is the inherent tension between migrant numbers and rights. Differences prompt migration, but ILO standards call for equal treatment of migrants. There is an economic relationship between the number and rights of migrants- the number of migrants tends to fall as rights and equal treatment rise. Many worker advocates consider labor rights to be human rights, and thus non-negotiable. Finding the proper balance between numbers and rights is a difficult and complex challenge for migrants, employers and governments who must weigh carefully the trade-offs between for instance, higher wages and better conditions compared to more migrants.

International Labor Office. 2004. Towards a fair deal for migrant workers in the global economy. Geneva, June. International Labour Conference, 92nd Session. Report VI