Business and Labour Migration

In 2019, the ILO estimated that globally there were 169 million international migrant workers, making up nearly 5 per cent of the global labour force. About 42 per cent of them were women. More than two thirds of these international migrant workers can be found in high-income countries, namely in Northern, Southern and Western Europe (23.9 per cent), in Northern America (22.8 per cent) and in Arab States (12.6 per cent).

Migrant workers positively contribute to the economy of host countries by filling shortages in critical sectors, increasing skills and knowledge transfer; and contributing to business expansion and growth. Migrant workers are also an important source of income and economic growth for their home countries, often low- and middle-income countries, thanks to the remittances they send to their families. Migrant workers returning to their home countries with the professional experience acquired abroad can also be a source of innovation.

However, international migrants – especially those migrating to another country outside of orderly and regular migration streams – are often exposed to risks of ending up in informal, temporary or unprotected jobs, or in situations of irregularity, leading to situations of exploitation or even forced labour. As such, they can be in fear of being deported, with limited knowledge of their rights and obligations under local laws and regulations and with limited or no access to social protection and grievance mechanisms in the host countries.

The risks of exploitation may occur at various stages of the international labour migration cycle from recruitment, through employment, to return to their country of origin. Irregular, unauthorized, or undocumented migrant workers in particular are at higher risk of exploitation. High recruitment costs charged by employers or recruitment agencies against the workers’ future earnings may compel the worker to stay in a job which he/she would otherwise leave. Other common forms of exploitation can involve deception on working conditions; unlawful deductions or non-payment of wages; confiscation of passports; and movement restrictions. Furthermore, wage discrimination, payment below the minimum wage, and excessive charges for housing and food leave little to pay back the debt and send home. In some cases, these abuses could amount to situations of forced labour and trafficking in persons or to situations where the migrant worker no longer has the option to return home because of the deceitful working conditions he/she was trapped into. Many migrant workers face additional discrimination based on gender, religion, origin and/or ethnicity, making them even more vulnerable.

Enterprises that employ migrant workers should ensure that their human rights and labour rights are fully respected and that they are protected from all forms of exploitation. Businesses should address and mitigate actual and potential violations of rights that migrant workers may face; and use their leverage with business partners to raise awareness of their responsibility to respect the rights of migrant workers.

International Labour Standards (ILS) that are directly related to migrant workers can guide enterprises in their policies and practices, These include: Migration for Employment Convention (revised), 1949 (No. 97), Migration for Employment Recommendation (revised), 1949 (No. 86), Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 (No.143), Migrant Workers Recommendation, 1975 (No. 151).

The ILO General principles and operational guidelines for fair recruitment and Definition of recruitment fees and related costs provide the most up-to-date and comprehensive international guidance in this area. These principles and guidelines are intended to cover the recruitment of all workers, including migrant workers, whether recruited directly by an employer or through an intermediary. They apply to recruitment within or across national borders, as well as to recruitment through temporary work agencies, and cover all sectors of the economy.

ILO also provides a comprehensive modular training manual on fair recruitment to support enterprises to design, support and implement fair recruitment practices for migrant workers as well as a practical due diligence toolkit for fair recruitment, produced by the ILO’s Global Business Network on Forced Labour. The ILO Fair Recruitment Initiative Knowledge Hub provides an opportunity to learn more about the subject and engage and exchange with policy makers and practitioners in this area.

Q&As on Business and Labour Migration

  • What is labour migration?
  • Fair recruitment
  • Passport retention of workers
  • Freedom of association
  • Social protection