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GCM Zero Draft: From Guest Workers to Immigrants

February 21, 2018

The UN General Assembly in September 2016 proposed a Global Compact for "safe, orderly, and regular" Migration. The goal is to commit world leaders who sign the GCM in December 2018 to "common principles" and "action items" to strengthen the global governance of migration and to promote the "positive contributions" of migrants.

The US in December 2017 withdrew from negotiations for the GCM, saying that the 2016 New York Declaration establishing the GCM process includes "numerous provisions that are inconsistent with US immigration and refugee policies and the Trump Administration's immigration principles."

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres in January 2018 acknowledged that international migration is not well managed, but insisted that "public perception… wrongly sees migration as out of control…[leading to] increased mistrust and policies aimed more at stopping than facilitating human movement."

The industrial countries hosted two thirds of the world's 258 million international migrants in 2017. President Trump often emphasizes the crimes committed by some migrants, while the leaders of several Eastern European countries use harsh language depicting migrants as criminals or spreading disease to refuse EU demands that they accept some of the migrants arriving by boat in Greece and Italy.

The EU justified its agreement with Turkey, which returns migrants who arrive illegally in Greece after March 20, 2016, as an humanitarian gesture aimed at reducing lives lost at sea. Similar Italy-Libya agreements have slowed the flow of migrants over the central Mediterranean since summer 2017.

Zero Draft. The GCM coordinators, Mexico and Switzerland, released a "zero draft" on February 5, 2018 that includes 22 actionable commitments, from better data to enhancing the portability of social security benefits. It calls on the UN to review progress toward achieving migration goals with a new International Migration Review Forum every four years beginning in 2022.

The first priority of the zero draft is better data on migration, followed by a commitment to pursue the SDGs and speed development so that people migrate out of choice rather than necessity, that is, reduce the push factors. Recommendation three is to provide better information to migrants before departure, while they are en route, and once they are in destinations, and four calls on governments to provide identity documents to migrants.

Recommendation five deals with labor migration. It calls on governments to open "regular pathways" that reflect "demographic and global labor market realities" by developing model labor mobility agreements by sector, such as for agriculture and hotels, and at all skill levels. These wider pathways for workers should reflect labor demand and supply and involve input from local stakeholders. All migrants should be able to bring or unify their families abroad.

Recommendation six calls for fair and ethical recruitment, including prohibiting recruiters from charging fees to migrant workers and having expansive joint liability, so that the beneficiaries of the work of migrants are jointly accountable for any labor law violations committed by the contractors and subcontractors they utilize. This recommendation also calls for guest workers to be treated like immigrants, able to switch employers once abroad, but does not deal with compensation for employers who presumably paid all of the migrant's recruitment costs.

The labor migration recommendations are likely to be rejected for several reasons. First, most countries determine whether employers need migrant workers on a job-by-job basis, which means that migrant workers are tied to a job that the government agrees cannot be filled by local workers. The GCM recommendation would effectively inject a certain number of workers into a labor market and expect them to find jobs. This may protect them from exploitative employers, but could also leave migrants unemployed and homeless.

Second, matching workers with jobs cost money, and prohibiting recruiters from charging workers means that job-matching costs must be paid in other ways, such as lower wages. Temp agencies do not charge workers for jobs, but also pay them lower wages than the workers with whom they work who are hired directly. Workers who invest in education and earn credentials often find that foreign employers willingly pay job-matching costs. Someone must pay to match low-skilled worker with jobs, and if employers pay job-matching costs, they are also likely to offer lower wages.

Lower wages may be an acceptable trade off for no worker-paid fees if workers do not have to borrow money to work abroad. However, surveys suggest that most low-skilled workers are able to borrow money to cover migration costs at low or no interest from friends and relatives. It may be more useful to coordinate efforts to reduce the very high migration costs of some workers in some corridors rather than call for a new labor migration worker model likely to be rejected by most destinations.

The GCM essentially calls for immigration rather than temporary worker programs to move workers over borders. Immigrants can normally arrive with their families and change employers, and can become naturalized citizens within a defined amount of time.