The Global
08 September 2021

Migration, work and rights: the case for human rights due diligence

Migration vulnerability stems from onerous terms of entry, stay, work and life based on migration status defined by law. While affirming broad state discretion, international law requires states to ensure human rights, which involves legal reform, business due diligence, and labour market coordination.

By Janelle Diller
Senior Research Associate for the Global Governance Centre

The chaotic and desperate scenes of migrants and asylum seekers who die in transit on land or at sea - or even in the air - or are collectively pushed back into harm's way fill the news pages. For many people fleeing poverty or conflict, a globally ordered system for the safe and humane movement of people across borders is far from the reality they encounter. Yet in one step closer to a proposed "safe, orderly and humane" migration, the US Biden Administration recently released a Collaborative Migration Management Strategy that aims to expand legal immigration, address root causes of migration including joblessness, and reunify families separated by the former "zero tolerance" policy applied mainly to migrants from Central America. A critical plank of the new strategy aims to coordinate labour market needs in all countries involved with better recruitment practices and worker protection. According to international experts, similar practices to reduce migration in irregular situations while preserving migrants' human and labour rights are feasible and effective for all concerned.

Despite its potential to resolve cross-border labour shortages and increase social security among other contributions, the labour market historically remains the "least developed part of globalization".  In contrast to the cross-border movement of goods and capital including along global value chains, states still cling to a predominantly national approach to migration. Control over the movement of people has been called the "last bastion of sovereignty".  By regulating passports, visas, residence and labour qualifications, national migration law affirms the continued importance of the nation-state and the concept of nationality.  Prejudiced claims that migrants threaten national security and host cultures breed a climate of hostility to migrants' rights. Government authorities along with paramilitary and other non-state actors thus continue life-threatening and inhumane practices against migrants with seeming impunity, such as pushbacks along most migration routes as reported recently by the UN Special Rapporteur on Migrants.

Many of the estimated 169 million migrant workers that make up nearly 70 percent of the world's migrant population of working age (15 years and over) confront vulnerable and precarious working and living situations, particularly lower-skilled migrant workers. They suffer from insufficient access to decent jobs and freedom of association, limited or no social entitlements such as basic health care, and impediments to participation in host societies.  People in situations of irregular migration living under the threat of detention and/or deportation are even more likely to face such deprivations but the extent of their plight is difficult to detect due to the clandestine nature of their status.  Cautious estimates based largely on indirect methods and proxies reported 58 million migrants in irregular situations globally in 2017, many in regions of developing countries.

In a forthcoming publication I explain that social exclusion, detention, and constant struggle for survival are not automatic and necessary outcomes of cross-border migration for work.  In many countries, the vulnerability of lower-skilled and other migrant workers is a deliberate result of admissions policies and practices designed by government and corporate decision-makers at national levels that adversely discriminate against migrant workers on the grounds of migration status. Decisions to create restrictive conditions of entry, stay and/or work produce social vulnerability and precarious employment when applied.  For example, visas that are tied to a single employer or single sector of work grant disproportionate power to the employer or industry which can threaten dismissal with possible deportation if workers claim their employment rights, such as the right to back pay. Other restrictions on migrants' social entitlements and public services, such as limits on access to health care, unemployment insurance or basic income security, employment injury coverage and social assistance, produce "institutionalized insecurity".

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