The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, Article 2, defines a migrant worker as “a person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.” The International Labour Organization (ILO) has noted that:
“The growing pace of economic globalization has created more migrant workers than ever before. Unemployment and increasing poverty have prompted many workers in developing countries to seek work elsewhere, while developed countries have increased their demand for labour, especially unskilled labour. As a result, millions of workers and their families travel to countries other than their own to find work. At present there are approximately 232 million migrants around the world, representing 3,1 per cent of the global population. Women make up almost half of migrants. It is estimated that one in eight migrants are between the age of 15 and 24. Migrant workers contribute to the economies of their host countries, and the remittances they send home help to boost the economies of their countries of origin. Yet at the same time migrant workers often enjoy little social protection, face inequalities in the labour market and are vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking. Skilled migrant workers are less vulnerable to exploitation, but their departure has deprived some developing countries of valuable labour needed for their own economies.”+ Read more
Stories of abuse of migrant workers surface regularly across the world. Migrant workers in certain sectors or working in certain states, and in particular those who are undocumented, face specific challenges. Migrant domestic workers, i.e. migrant workers who perform work within an employment relationship in or for a private household or households, are particularly vulnerable to exploitative working conditions which may reach the intensity of slavery or slavery-like conditions, as well as to discrimination, verbal, physical or sexual abuse, and have limited if any access to social protection. Female migrant domestic workers in particular are also vulnerable to sexual and gender based violence and are unable to freely move in and out of the work place. Migrant workers in the fishing industry are particularly at risk as they might work in international waters beyond the jurisdiction of any state, or may operate under specific visa requirements in territorial waters which prevent them from being able to effectively seek support for human rights abuses. Migrant workers in the Gulf countries often have to pay recruitment fees and are subjected to a sponsorship system, which restricts them from changing employers, they often face harsh working and living conditions and are generally prohibited from organising. Recently the government of Qatar and the ILO entered into an agreement to reform the current system.
The key international standards and mechanisms ensuring protection for migrant workers include:
- UN: The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, 1990. The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (CMW), which is the body of independent experts in charge of monitoring the Convention by State Parties. The UN has also maintained a Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants since 1999.
- ILO Migration for Employment Convention (Revised), 1949 (No. 97)
- ILO Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 (No. 143)
- Sustainable Development Goal 8, Target 8.8
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), Commentary to Guiding Principle 3, highlights that a state, in providing guidance to business enterprises, “should advise on appropriate methods, including human rights due diligence, and how to consider effectively issues of … migrant workers and their families.” The Commentary to Guiding Principle 12 highlights that businesses, in addition to the core human rights standards, may need to consider United Nations instruments on migrant workers and their families.
An important role in protecting migrant workers from abuse can also be played by National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). For example, the Asia Pacific Forum has noted that some NHRIs in the region “have established outreach and monitoring programs and some have developed formal Memorandums of Understanding with other NHRIs in the region to strengthen the protections available to migrant workers.”
Other actors, including non-governmental organisations are undertaking initiatives that aim to improve the protection of migrant workers. Examples include: The Dhaka Principles for Migration with Dignity (Institute for Human Rights and Business), and The Employer Pays Principle.
The UK Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, established by legislation, maintains a licensing scheme which regulates businesses who provide workers to the fresh produce supply chain and horticulture industry, to make sure they meet the employment standards required by law. This industry contains a number of migrant workers in the UK, especially seasonal workers. New Zealand have established a Recognised Seasonal Employer Policy which establishes a formal mechanism for employers to recruit workers to plant, maintain, harvest or pack crops, and formal visa system for the workers, and provides information on human rights protections for all parties.