From cockle pickers to computer programmers: New approaches for migrant workers

In February 2004, 20 Chinese citizens were drowned on the coast of northwest England while picking cockles (a speciality shellfish). The workers were irregular migrants, employed by an organized gang. Their fate highlighted the precariousness of many migrants' existence, their exposure to exploitation, and the need for action to regulate migration around the world. While some migrants are able to secure employment in hi-tech or similarly skilled professions, many must accept exploitation with no legal protection, in order to survive. This year's International Labour Conference is to discuss the issue and what the ILO and its member States can do about it.

Over the last decade, migrant numbers have increased by about six million a year, to a total of some 175 million. According to the Conference report, "Towards a fair deal for migrant workers in the global economy" (Note 1), if international migrants were considered together they would account for the world's fifth most populous "country".

The report says close to half of all migrants and refugees worldwide - or some 86 million adults - are economically active, employed or otherwise engaged in remunerative activity. What's more, it adds that the number of migrants crossing borders in search of employment and human security is expected to increase dramatically in the coming decades, due to the failure of globalization to provide jobs and economic opportunities.

The Conference will discuss options including an "integrated approach" to tackle labour migration in an era of globalization. This would include policies and structures for more orderly migration for employment, and improving migrant worker protection through standard-setting. Attended by ministers of labour from the 177 ILO member States and leaders of workers' and employers' organizations, it will be the highest-level and most representative discussion of international migration issues in ten years.

The discussion is timely as growing cross-border movements of labour have emerged as a central issue for the international community. Rising economic and demographic differences between nation states make the transfer of people over borders a "natural response" in a globalizing world. Two recent global reports, one by the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, and the other by the Global Commission on Human Security, have placed migration issues at the top of their recommendations for a global policy agenda. In 2003, two independent initiatives, The Declaration of the Hague on the Future of Refugee and Migration Policy, of the Society for International Development, and the Swiss Government's Berne Initiative, also urged partnerships in incorporating humanitarian principles in managing migration. At the beginning of 2004, a new Global Commission on Migration was established. In 2006, the High-Level Dialogue of the United Nations General Assembly will be devoted to the issue of migration and development.

The challenge confronting the global community is to manage migration so that it can serve as a force for growth and development, and not lead to clandestine movements and the dangers these pose to established institutions and the respect of labour standards. Various initiatives to develop a global consensus on the rules and principles to govern migration began soon after the demise of bilaterally arranged migration in the mid-1970s, but success has been elusive.

Today's migrant workforce includes workers with a variety of skills, but flows are still dominated by workers moving to fill unskilled jobs in those segments of the labour market vacated by native workers who move on to better jobs. However, the significance of migrant labour in these segments is not uniform across regions, especially in the OECD countries, where recent flows are increasingly becoming more skilled. Labour and immigration policies influence the absorption of migrant workers in different economic sectors, so that migrant farm workers are more important in the United States than in Western Europe.

The workings of international migration are complicated, and pose difficult questions to today's policymakers. Yet the report concludes with a clear message, saying that the economic effects of immigration on receiving countries are mainly beneficial - migrants rejuvenate populations and stimulate growth without inflation. International labour migration is likely to increase in the future, and with proper regulation this will bring benefits to countries of origin and destination, as well as to migrants themselves.

The role of migrants in the global economy

The new ILO report, Towards a fair deal for migrant workers in the global economy, highlights that:

  • The economic effects of immigration on receiving countries are mainly beneficial, with the newcomers rejuvenating populations and stimulating growth without inflation

  • Origin countries may experience a "brain drain" when they face the emigration of skilled people. Nearly 400,000 scientists and engineers from developing countries are working on research and development in industrial countries. Jamaica and Ghana have more of their locally trained doctors outside the countries than inside them

  • Migrants provide huge flows of remittances to their countries, amounting to an estimated US$80 billion annually (in 2002), or the second largest source of external funding for developing countries, according to data from the World Bank

  • Women account for 49 per cent, or nearly half, of the world's migrants, and are increasingly travelling on their own as their family's primary income earner
Between 10 and 15 per cent of migrants are in irregular status, a phenomenon which is not confined to developed countries. "The extent of the flows of irregular workers is a strong indication that the demand for regular migrant workers is not being matched by the supply."

Note 1 - "Towards a fair deal for migrant workers in the global economy", International Labour Office, Geneva, ISBN 92-2-113043-6.