The existing institutional and policy structures in place are not adequate to protect the rights of the migrants
International labour mobility is one of the central dimensions of the current phase of globalisation. More people live and work outside their country of origin today than at any other time in history, and the numbers of people who move across international borders in search of better economic prospects are expected to rise in future. The stock of international migrants in 2010 is estimated to be around 214 million, a significant share among them moving out of their country of origin for employment.
This also holds true for women who now constitute around half of the international migrant stock. Not only has labour mobility increased in magnitude, it has also become heterogeneous in terms of both its direction and composition. For instance, the flow of international workers is no longer directed from South to North alone — an increasing share now moves between South to South and even from North to South.
As population movements are fluid and distinct from capital and commodities, nations are increasingly adopting policies to regulate and restrict cross-border migration. An unintended consequence of such migration governance is a steep increase in irregular migrants — a point stressed by several international organisations engaged with labour migration like International Labour Organization (ILO) and International Organization for Migration (IOM).
In the coming years, with the demand for migrant labour likely to increase in high income and developed economies, essentially due to the ageing of the population, student migration, mismatch between demand and supply of skills, and the expanding role of the migration industry, the global migration landscape is all set to become more complex.
Migration and development
In this context, the book by ILO documenting approaches to labour migration in a rights-based perspective is a welcome effort. The first part of the book provides an overview of international migration trends and emerging patterns, as well as of factors initiating and perpetuating migration, highlighting the migration-development nexus in both the countries of origin and the destination.
A detailed account is also provided of various vulnerabilities encountered by migrant workers in the migration cycle and how they vary across different economic activities and migrant groups. The second part provides a detailed review of the existing international instruments, particularly those evolved by ILO and United Nations (UN), to protect migrant workers and to ensure decent work for all.
In general, the existing international conventions emphasise freedom, dignity and protection of migrants in a foreign country, by ensuring the right to migrate, right to information on safe migration, right to unionise and collective bargaining, access to social security and right against trafficking and smuggling.
However, a major problem with these international legal instruments is their low ratification status. For instance, in the South Asia-Gulf migration corridor, except Bangladesh, no country has ratified any ILO or UN Convention with respect to migrant workers. To overcome the impasse, at least partially, ILO has developed a Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration in 2005. This framework is non-binding on the member states and addresses the need for gender-sensitive migration policies that address the special problems of migrant women workers.
Yet another significant development towards ensuring the rights of migrant workers is the increasing emphasis on bilateral agreements between labour sending and receiving countries. Compared to the international instruments, bilateral agreements are less time-consuming, easily negotiable and entrust more responsibility to the nations involved in migration to discourage fraudulent practices in the migration process. For instance, India has entered into bilateral agreements with many countries in the Gulf region, a major destination of Indian workers.
The book also highlights the need to manage labour flows more effectively, control the recruitment process, develop a skill recognition framework and ensure portability of social security benefits, among others, to reinforcing the migration-development nexus.
A critical reading of the book highlights the fact that the existing institutional and policy structures in place are not adequate to protect the rights of the migrants. First, due to the low ratification status, little can be expected from the well-crafted international conventions.
Second, no international institution has a specific legal protection mandate applying to all migrants in the world. Moreover, to complicate the matter, there is a lack of coherence between policies followed by various international organisations/forums and also across stakeholders at the global, regional and national levels working towards ensuring rights of migrant workers.
Third, most discussions pertaining to migration tend to focus more on remittances, rather than being migrant worker-centric.
The book is a welcome effort to situate migrants and their households at the centre of the migration discourse. Within this framework, the effort made by various civil society organisations that have emerged as an important link facilitating migration by providing a range of services — such as raising awareness on safe migration, providing pre-departure orientation including skill upgrade and organising migrant workers, among others — deserves much greater attention.
On the whole there is a pertinent need to evolve an agenda that captures the migrants’ voice, recognising their right to migrate and also protecting the rights of migrants at work.