The Business of Migration - Migrant Worker Rights in a Time of Financial Crisis

Commentary, 06 October 2009

By Frances House, Deputy Chief Executive, IHRB

The Institute for Human Rights and Business is embarking on a three-year process of addressing the role of the private sector in migrant worker protection. The increased risk of abuse of migrants’ rights within the current financial crisis, coupled with the absence of any international mechanism of migrant protection, lends urgency to this work.

Migration of labour has long been one of the drivers of global economic growth but the global financial crisis has resulted in wide-scale migrant job losses, falling remittance payments to poor home communities dependent on this income stream, and increased social tension as competition for jobs intensifies and xenophobia rises.

As ILO Director-General Juan Somavia has said:

"The current global financial and economic crises have serious implications for migrant workers worldwide. Past experience makes us painfully aware that migrant workers, especially women workers and those in irregular status, are among the hardest hit and most vulnerable during crisis situations...It is important that migrant workers do not become scapegoats for the current financial and economic crisis."

The 2009 Human Development Report, launched this week by the United Nations Development Programme in New York and Bangkok, has picked migration as its key global trend There are estimated to be around 200 million international migrants in the world today, with an additional 740 million internal migrants (those who have moved within their own country). In total this represents one in six of the world’s population.

"Migration can be a force for good, contributing significantly to human development," says Helen Clark, Head of UNDP. "But to realize its benefits, there needs to be a supportive policy environment."

A 2009 World Bank forecast on migrant remittances during the financial crisis, predicts that remittances will fall more than originally expected this year - from $305 billion last year to an amount closer to $290 billion in 2009. Despite this, migrant worker remittances, even with a drop of between 5 and 8 percent, will still outstrip private capital flows, expected to fall by half in 2009, and official development aid, typically around $100 billion. World Bank economists predict remittances will amount to about 1.8 percent of GDP for developing countries in 2009, a slight drop from 1.9 percent of GDP in 2008.

In many sectors, ranging from construction to agriculture, and in all parts of the world, human rights abuses against migrant workers are commonplace, whether the workers have migrated internally or from abroad. Violations of international human rights standards include withholding of passports and underpayment - constituting a form of bonded labour, making them work overtime beyond legal limits and sometimes without pay, providing them with poor working and living conditions, discriminating on the basis of gender, and not providing social security or access to health care for their families.

International protection mechanisms are entirely lacking. See Human Rights Watch’s 2008 reports on the plight of migrant construction workers in Beijing and Asian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

And this is before the question of human trafficking is raised. People trafficking is already said to be worth $10 billion per year. Peter Sutherland, special representative on migration for the U.N. secretary-general, insists, "we have to have a much greater degree of cooperation between countries of origin and countries of destination to maintain or develop opportunities for regular migration while finding mechanisms to stop irregular migration."

At the recent meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in New York where heads of state, government, business and civil society leaders gathered to debate possible solutions to urgent global issues, the Institute for Human Rights and Business committed to addressing migrant worker protection through a new initiative in partnership with the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF).

The programme will identify specific challenges regarding migrant worker protection and seek to instigate collective practical action by companies and other stakeholders to effect positive change in government policy and corporate practice.

A number of other migration-related commitments were announced at this year’s CGI as well. Business for Social Responsibility’s South-South Labor Migration [68 pages], and Western Union’s Our World, Our Family Program were discussed and new commitments to action on trafficking and forced labour were also announced including preventing child labour through the 'Not Made by Children' initiatives of the Global March Against Child Labour, and 'Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People' by The Body Shop International, and ECPAT International.

It is encouraging to see the growing determination by a number of leading organizations to tackle issues associated with business and migration. But we urgently need to scale up and coordinate responses to protect the human rights of those who are most vulnerable today. We'll keep you posted on IHRB efforts in this area and we welcome your feedback.

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