Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Decent work for all, including migrants

What would a workers-first migration agenda look like?

Neha Misra Shannon Lederer
18 May 2022, 6.00am

Migrant workers pick tulips in Norfolk, UK


Geoffrey Robinson/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The International Migration Review Forum, the primary intergovernmental platform to discuss and share progress on the implementation of the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), is happening this week at the United Nations in New York. It occurs at a time when working families are struggling to manage overlapping health, economic, political, and racial justice crises. Democracies around the world are under attack, and workers and their unions are faced with severe threats to freedom of association, assembly, and expression and other closing spaces for civil society. Amidst these threats, the Global Coalition on Migration has joined the global labour movement in its call for a new social contract that ensures equality, inclusion, climate friendly jobs, universal social protection and rights for all workers, with no exclusions.

The implementation of the GCM, if it is to succeed, must also support and advance this broader agenda.

Charting a bold new course

The global pandemic has demonstrated that current systems are failing workers and migrants. This is true for both documented and undocumented migrants, and it is just as true for those fleeing conflict or climate change as it is for those seeking economic opportunity. While race, ethnicity, gender identity, or migration status exacerbate vulnerabilities, migrants overall are facing extreme deficits in their ability to exercise their protected rights.

This is nothing new. The serious, systematic and pervasive ways that migrants have been excluded, exploited and marginalised have been well documented for decades. But the GCM, which UN member states signed into effect four years ago, has the potential to help change that if states follow through with their commitments to place human and worker rights at the forefront of migration policy. Workers and their families are watching, and they expect and deserve real results. The global labour movement is calling for policy coherence in migration governance, where regular pathways for migration must be developed in tandem with urgent efforts to regularise undocumented migrants and respond to climate driven displacement and other pressing humanitarian needs.

It is imperative to break down the artificial separation between global refugee and migration frameworks.

Now is the time to think boldly about the structural shifts needed to address pervasive injustices and scale up commitments to laws, policies and investments that support decent work for all. This requires a whole-of-government approach that centres the objectives of economic, trade, migration, climate, and foreign policy around protecting human rights and the environment. Only through such an approach can we hope to promote a future in which migration becomes a choice rather than a means of survival.

Where migration meets workers’ rights

Given that serious humanitarian and human rights concerns gave rise to the GCM, implementation strategies must prioritise regularisation schemes and rights-based channels over expanding temporary or circular work programmes. Governments must create regular migration pathways that ensure full worker rights, facilitate social and family cohesion, and provide options for permanent residence and meaningful participation in civic life.

With the escalating level of forced displacement and mixed migration flows occurring around the world, it is imperative to break down the artificial separation between global refugee and migration frameworks. States’ efforts to promote regular pathways should prioritise restoring and expanding humanitarian resettlement options, rather than misdirecting desperate migrants into flawed and abusive temporary labour migration programmes. They must also protect and empower workers in countries of origin, transit, and destination while producing positive labour market outcomes for all working people, regardless of race, gender, or immigration status.

We call for policy coherence that incorporates migration governance into the broader economic, social, racial, and gender justice agenda.

To effectively integrate a worker rights’ lens into policy frameworks, workers need a seat at the table as these policies are being developed and implemented. Workers have had enough of siloed, ineffective tweaks to an unjust migration system. We instead call for policy coherence that incorporates migration governance into the broader economic, social, racial, and gender justice agenda.

Workers’ agency is fundamental to achieving fair migration and decent work for all, so it is alarming that the GCM progress declaration fails to even reference freedom of association or the right to organise and collectively bargain in its state commitments. Freedom of association is an enabling right that shifts the power dynamics to allow workers to come together to protect and advance their interests through collective actions and negotiations with employers. Without this shift we can never hope to reverse entrenched patterns of discrimination and exploitation against migrant workers.

Justice for all workers

The GCM implementation process must serve as a vehicle to address the root causes of migration and to encourage pathways out of irregularity. It must also enhance regular migration channels in ways that address pressing human needs and ensure fundamental rights. However, without bold action that involves all social partners, states may continue to shirk their human rights obligations and fail to protect workers from deportation and abusive temporary work programmes.

The global labour movement and the Global Coalition on Migration renew our call for states to pursue a worker-centred approach that adheres to human and labour rights standards and does not further criminalise migrants or empower the private sector to dictate the terms of migration governance. Those convening in New York must recognise the fundamental need for freedom of association as a means to correct coercive power imbalances and enable workers to protect and advance their collective interests. This structural shift is critical to reducing the push factors that force too many working families to migrate as a means of survival.

Meaningful GCM implementation must respect the rights of all workers, regardless of status. Together, workers will break cycles of exploitation and ensure decent work the same way we always have – through organising, collective bargaining, and mobilising to win overdue changes. The global labour movement will continue to fight for a new social contract, and a more just and inclusive recovery for all.

This article is part of a series published to coincide with the UN's first International Migration Review Forum (16-20 May). The series was produced in collaboration with the Global Coalition on Migration, and draws its content from their new Spotlight Report on Global Migration. The report centres migrant human rights in the discussion and calls for gender-responsive and permanent regular pathways, regularisation of undocumented migrants, and protection of migrants’ rights. It highlights the voices of grassroots organisations, activists and communities across its six chapters.

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