Not Wanted On The Voyage

Migrant workers' needs and rights continue to be ignored
February 1, 2014

It had to be scary. The water was deep and choppy. Yet it was all that separated the 500 migrants seeking a better life. Taking this risky boat ride meant a chance at a decent job and sending some money to family members left behind.

Like so many other migrants, their choices were limited. Stay and try and survive in their home country where jobs and prosperity really don't exist, or get on an overcrowded boat at the urging of smugglers and labour brokers making promises about high-paying jobs and abundant work.

The 66-foot boat was carrying migrants that were mostly from Eritrea and Somalia. For these people, their home circumstances are often so desperate that an overcrowded boat provides their only chance to escape grinding poverty.

This voyage ended in catastrophe. En route, the boat caught on fire and sank off the coast of Lampedusa, a small island near Italy. More than half the passengers drowned, many of them children.

Each year, tens of thousands attempt perilous crossings like this, with one migrant rights group estimating that more than 20,000 have already drowned. Many other migrants with few economic choices indebt themselves to labour brokers, believing that a temporary work permit and being tied to one employer might better their economic fortunes. No matter the mode of migration, people are increasingly taking grave risks because their economic choices at home are so very limited.

* * *

As the most recent group of migrants were sailing from Africa to Europe, heads of government and high-level bureaucrats prepared to meet at the second High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development (HLD) being held at the United Nations in New York.

The first UN HLD took place in 2006, a unique global meeting that was intended to shape a dialogue among member nations of the UN on how to address the challenges presented by the growing trend of international migration.

Today there are over 230 million migrants. If gathered together, this huge group would comprise the fifth most populous country in the world. The number of migrants is rising faster than the global population.

More than half of them are on the move for jobs. When you count their families, who are often also economically active, it is clear that upwards of 90% of migrants are working -- many to survive.

Migrants cross borders for many reasons, including a need to escape persecution, to work, to study, or simply to visit or join family members. Whatever the push factor, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities understands that the vast majority of migrants are seeking better economic and social opportunities. Simply put, members of this growing segment of humanity are increasingly leaving their home country due to persistent unemployment or underemployment, and low wages.

Sadly, both High Level Dialogues have failed to deal head on with the basic reasons why migrants are on the move in such large numbers.

At the opening of the Second HLD, state officials briefly acknowledged the tragic loss of life off the coast of Italy. But not once in the subsequent two-day meeting was there any serious discussion of the failure of states to invest in economic and social development so that people would not be compelled to risk their lives on such dangerous and often deadly migration trips.

This grave omission is also absent in the long-winded UN General Assembly declaration coming out of the latest HLD meeting. Spread over five pages, the declaration details 34 distinct areas of concern and calls for action. Despite the garrulous text, however, there is no explicit call for governments to commit to policy remedies that would make migration a choice rather than an economic necessity.

The declaration does, however, reveal other alarming priorities.

Migration and development

International institutions like the UN have long been promoting a migration policy discussion based on the dubious conviction that migration is a significant contributor to development. Poor countries are seeing their nationals leave in greater numbers than ever before, in part due to wars and trade and investment agreements that also carry devastating economic impacts. The direction of this migration is understandably from the poor countries to the less poor. The share of migrants from "developing" countries has almost tripled in the last 40 years.

The World Bank recently predicted that remittances of hard-working migrants to their loved ones left behind in developing countries will grow by 6.3% this year to $414 billion, and to surpass the half-trillion mark by 2016. It is easy to see why global policy wonks are inclined to view the returning wages of migrants as a powerful economic vehicle.

But next to nothing was said at 1 UN Plaza to question whether such a large amount of returning wages really constitutes meaningful development. Instead, the declaration coming out of the UN HLD called for state actions to reduce the costs of migration, such as lowering the cost of remittances and fees paid to labour brokers.

Nothing was said about migrants leaving home and family to earn wages abroad from tending someone else's children, or working long hours in a factory or a construction project with few workplace safeguards and fewer rights than others.

No one offered to add up the huge costs of economic dependency, social discord, and family upheaval that accompany migrants on their search for work abroad.

Of course, data disputing the value of remittances as development dollars does exist. Canada's long-standing Seasonal Agricultural Program (SAWP) reveals, for example, that migrant farm workers from Mexico save on average $5,000 per annual contract. Once household expenses are deducted, however, there is little money left to invest in local economies – and this is a program that has been in operation for more than four decades.

Other research carried out in Canada has shown that families of migrant workers spend most of their remittance funds on basic subsistence items (e.g., food, potable water, clothing), followed by household goods such as stoves and electric power, followed by improvements in communications such as telephone lines or cell-phones in order to keep in touch with family members working in Canada. These "investments" are essentially being used to produce more and better migrants.

There is much less evidence that remittances are invested in the purchase of agricultural lands, machinery, livestock, or businesses enterprises.

With the growth of temporary worker programs and annually recurring access to higher wages abroad, there is little reason to direct remittances into productive local investments. Just sign up for an eight-month or two-year work term abroad. Family members can take turns, and an economic dependency is quickly created. Canada's SAWP program boasts workers who have annually worked in Canada for as long as 20 years, harvesting the nation's foodstuffs as transients.

In addition, many sending countries are unable to invest in their local economies, either by restricted political choice or due to imposed austerity measures.

There is a growing dearth of decent work opportunities around the world. The global economic crisis that erupted in 2008 continues to cause retrenchments of considerable size. Global unemployment figures are estimated at between 29-59 million, with the middle classes accounting for 39 million people no longer working. At the same time, the number of "working poor" -- those living on US$2/day or less -- has been steadily growing, reaching nearly 1.5 billion in 2009.

At the UN HLD, however, the message was clear: migration equals development. Period. It was repeated like a hopeful mantra rather than a proven fact.

The UN process gave centre stage to a university professor from Harvard, who presented just a few power-point slides allegedly showing that, while liberalizing trade and lowering barriers to capital flows lead to huge economic gains, it is nothing in comparison with the potential windfall that awaits if borders are made easier to cross for economic migrants.

As the representatives of member states salivated at the prospect of reaping greater economic gains from migrants, the bodies being retrieved from the waters off the Italian coast drifted farther and farther from the meeting's concerns. The UN organizers had little interest in hearing a critique of their preferred policy directions.

Critics not welcome

Leading up to this unique UN gathering, civil society groups and trade unions globally had been preparing to participate constructively in the discussions. For over a year, hundreds of them had organized and met in over 20 regional events around the world in the lead-up to the UN HLD.

Last July, the net result of these regional and continental events came together to weave recommendations into a cogent and shared analysis that set out a five-year, multi-point action plan to address the challenges of a growing migrant population.

This bold but achievable plan called for governments to put in place standards and mechanisms to:

  • invest in social and economic development within sending countries that creates lasting and decent work for its citizens;
  • regulate the labour recruitment industry;
  • address the needs of migrants in distress, including ending the criminalization of migrants;
  • integrate the migration policy discourse into the UN post-2015 development agenda;
  • put in place accessible mechanisms that will guarantee labour rights for migrants;
  • address the needs of migrant women;
  • establish benchmarks for good practice at the national level that is consistent with international conventions protecting the rights of migrants and their families; and
  • institutionalize the global policy discourse on migration in an arena that is transparent, inclusive, and accountable, such as the ILO.

Early on, the UN internal process had promised to seriously listen to civil society inputs, but, as this conference got underway, the rules were dramatically changed. Delegates were told that only a very limited number of civil society speakers had been invited to address the General Assembly and speak at one of the four roundtables. At the very last minute, even these few were then told they would not be guaranteed a seat at the roundtables.

Claims of limited time and space on the agenda were offered up as excuses, but it soon became apparent where the priorities were really being placed.

A major labour recruiter granted an award by the World Economic Forum for operating an "ethical labour supply company" was given an opportunity to address member states, as was a for-profit development firm, but not the civil society rapporteur who had been pre-selected earlier in the year, nor representatives from any organizations that represent workers.

Workers, front-line service providers, community-based organizations, and migrants themselves from around the world had come to the HLD with the expectation of being heard. Advocates and activists had invested considerable time, energy, and resources to get there. In return, many who went inside the UN HLD meeting hall instead were met with discouragement and disrespect.

It was only due to the sustained outrage of civil society delegates and trade unions that, at the very last minute, UN organizers relented and gave one of the selected civil society representatives a cursory opportunity to address member states.

Our spokesperson delivered a scorching critique of the UN process, emphasizing that governments have the power to address the many problems with temporary migration schemes. She charged that the conference, by rejecting the opportunity to make real improvements, was completely ignoring the root causes of why people migrate. Instead, it had chosen to focus on lowering the economic cost of remittances and further allowing employers easier access to workers' labour while violating their rights.

Where is this boat sailing?

While this on-the-ground treatment was troubling, equally disturbing is where the international debate on migration is headed.

Given that the vast majority of migrants are on the move to obtain work, it makes sense that any global policy dialogue dealing with this matter should take place within international forums where labour rights are well understood and respected. The obvious place to discuss, debate, and provide safeguards for this large and growing demographic group is within the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The ILO has the structural benefit of a tripartite table with an equal number of representatives from government, labour, and employers, each exercising the same level of influence. While not perfect, it is a table where meaningful social dialogue and policy remedies have been developed on many other issues. Consider, for example, the historic debate and passing of Convention 189 which protects the rights of domestic workers. More than 14 countries – primarily those that have large numbers of their nationals traveling abroad to work as domestic care givers -- have ratified this important international instrument that protects these workers' rights.

The ILO already has the strong foundation of other international instruments that also spell out protections for migrant workers that governments could implement. It has also developed a comprehensive multilateral framework on labour migration in which the needs of female migrant workers and those whose status is irregular or temporary are addressed. These are particularly vulnerable groups who are generally concentrated in what is speciously categorized as "low-skill" job categories and who endure inferior workplace rights and protections.

For many activists attending the UN HLD, one principle remains clear: global migration policy must be governed in a human rights framework, and cannot simply be determined by the economic interests of employers and brokers.

Unfortunately, the UN HLD is ignoring the ILO as an ideal venue to house this important global policy debate. Instead, the UN is putting its faith in entities like the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Both of these bodies have a skewed bias towards employers and labour brokers, and even include space for corporations like Western Union which profit from the high fees charged for remittances.

The GFMD has barely hidden its disdain for civil society and labour organizations. Headed by Peter Sutherland, a major player in the establishment of the WTO as well as a board member of Goldman Sachs and British Petroleum, the GFMD has proven itself to be heavily invested in the unquestioned belief that migration contributes to global development.

More importantly, although the GFMD has met annually since 2006 (and always at luxurious resorts), the great majority of recommendations made by migrant rights advocates have not been implemented by participating governments, including Canada. Not surprising since the GFMD is really a non-binding opportunity for meaningless discussion, not concrete action.

The IOM's track record is also disappointing. In Canada, the IOM approved a program for Guatemalans to work on farms in Canada that required them to put down a 17% deposit for the right to work. It had them sign an employment contract that, among other things, prohibited association with unions, allowed employers to keep their passports, and compelled workers to keep their hair short.

Global unions and activists who have seen up close the undemocratic and unseemly side of the UN HLD now realize that such institutions will never provide a human rights framework in which the rights and welfare of migrant workers will be effectively assured.

Not all disappointing

While the HLD meetings took place at 1 UN Plaza, a vibrant Peoples' Global Assembly took place across the street. About 500 activists from around the world offered dozens of dynamic workshops, insightful plenary sessions, and community site tours of newcomer neighbourhoods that are organizing for change.

The Assembly delegates also marched peacefully across the Brooklyn Bridge to symbolize the importance of building bridges between communities and across great distances with one central principle – that migration can only result in development if governments commit to a human rights framework to govern global migration.

The Canadian Labour Congress -- with the support of the UFCW, USW, UNIFOR, BCGUE, and COPE378 -- was able to organize a small delegation of unions and community activists to participate in both the UN HLD and the PGA. The delegation included representatives from Vancouver's Committee for Domestic Workers and Caregivers, the Canadian Council for Refugees; Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, Sanctuary City movement, a human rights lawyers, and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.

Our delegation learned and exchanged a great deal including:

  • how to implement strategies that enable city governments to extend social services to newcomers;
  • extending voting rights to newcomers at the local levels, leading to enhanced civic engagement;
  • countering the isolation and loneliness migrants face upon arrival in a new country and workplace;
  • licensing and regulating labour brokers;
  • utilizing legal resistance strategies to advocate for policy reforms to temporary migration programs; and
  • advancing pathways to permanent residency from within temporary migration schemes.

Advancing the struggles of migrant workers at the global level will continue to be arduous. The waters ahead are deep and choppy, but ongoing alliance building among and between grassroots movements is leading us in innovative and encouraging directions.

(Karl Flecker is the Director of Anti-Racism and Human Rights with the Canadian Labour Congress.)