Social protection for migrant workers

Although the 105 million migrant workers of the 232 million international migrants worldwide contribute fully to the economies of their host and home countries, migrant workers are among the most excluded from even basic coverage by social protection instruments and schemes, in particular undocumented migrant workers. They risk losing entitlement to social security benefits in their country of origin due to their absence and may at the same time encounter restrictive conditions under the social security system of the host country. They may contribute to social security schemes, either in their home countries or countries of destination, but may not receive any corresponding benefit. They may face constraints in the portability of these rights. Schemes may have long residency requirements, making it difficult for temporary migrants to claim their benefits, effectively amounting exclusion from any form of social protection when engaged in temporary or informal work.

Key principles are laid down in the ILO Conventions and Recommendations which make provision for the social security rights of migrant workers and their families. These principles are as follows:
  • Equal treatment and non-discrimination including equal treatment in the field of social security between nationals and non-nationals;
  • Maintenance of acquired rights;
  • Maintenance of rights in the course of acquisition; and
  • Payment of benefits to beneficiaries residing abroad.
The ILO Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration (2006) calls for the conclusion of social security agreements for the benefit of migrant workers (Guideline 9.9. p. 18). Social security agreements are treaties which coordinate the social security schemes of two or more countries to ensure the portability of social security entitlements.
The main challenges related to concluding bilateral or multilateral social security agreements: :
  • In some origin countries, social security schemes might be insufficiently developed, which is a problem for agreements that apply on a reciprocal basis;
  • Social security schemes can also differ considerably –i.e. disparity in the design and level of benefits (e.g. provident funds/social insurance schemes.);
  • Administrative capacity can be insufficient;
  • Lack of willingness on the part of some countries to conclude agreements.
The ILO Social Protection Floors Recommendation, No. 202, adopted by the ILC in June 2012 complements existing ILO Conventions and Recommendations. According to the Recommendation, Members should establish and maintain national social protection floors comprising basic social security guarantees to ensure that all members of society enjoy at least a basic level of social security throughout their lives. Such guarantees should be provided to all residents and children, as defined in national laws and regulations and subject to existing international obligations. As such, migrants and their families should have access to these basic social security guarantees in the State where they reside, as well as in their home country. Should there be bilateral or multilateral agreements in place providing for higher levels of protection, or should the countries concerned be parties to international or regional Conventions containing more favourable requirements with regard to migrants’ social security rights (e.g. ILO Conventions No. 118 and No. 157), these would prevail.

ILO’s approach to enhance migrant workers’ social protection involves:
  1. To promote the ratification and application of ILO standards provided in its Conventions and Recommendations relevant to migrant workers and their social protection.
  2. To support the conclusion of social security agreements (bilateral/multilateral): treaties which coordinate the social security schemes of two or more countries to provide equality of treatment in respect of social security, as well as access to and preservation and/or portability of social security entitlements (ILC 2011 Conclusions), using the Annex of the Maintenance of Social Security Rights Recommendation, 1983 (No. 167) as a model Agreement for the coordination of bilateral or multilateral social security instruments.
  3. To support unilateral measures: countries of employment can provide unilaterally equality of treatment between nationals and non-nationals as regards social security coverage as well as the payment of benefits abroad. Also, countries of origin can provide a basic level of protection to their nationals working abroad through voluntary insurance.
  4. To promote the inclusion of social security provisions in temporary labour migration programmes or bilateral labour agreements using the Annex of the Migration for Employment Recommendation, 1949, (No.86) as a model agreement.
  5. To support the establishment of national social protection floors to ensure basic social security guarantees to migrants and their families and palliate the lack of coordination arrangements between countries in respect of any branch of social security.
  6. To explore community based mechanisms when implementing social protection schemes for migrant workers.