Migrant Workers

Migrant Workers

In this article, we shall discuss the issue of migrant workers in international relations. International migration is often due to individuals looking for greater economic opportunities in other countries. And because of this, they leave their countries looking for work, as well as other opportunities in order to be able to better provide for their families (ILO, 2009).

In terms of figures, “Some 232 million international migrants are living in the world today. Since 1990, the number of international migrants in the global North increased by around 53 million (65%), while the migrant population in the global South grew by around 24 million (34%). Today, about six out of every ten international migrants reside in the developed regions” (UN-DESA & OECD, 2013: 1). And it is said that there are over 34.8 million youth migrants in the world (UN-DESA & OECD, 2013). And amongst the migrants, most do not have an education. For example, as the UN-DESA and OECD (2013) reports, “One in every three international migrant aged 15 and above has limited education. The number of international migrants with no more than lower secondary education in OECD countries increased by 12% in the past ten years, mainly as a result of a high demand for low-skilled workers as well as non-labour related migration flows” (3).

And the number of migrant workers in the world increased in the past decade. For example, “During the period 2000-10, the global migrant stock grew twice as fast than during the previous decade. During the 1990s, the global migrant stock grew at an average of about 2 million migrants per year. During the decade 2000-10, the growth in the migrant stock accelerated to about 4.6 million migrants annually” (UN-DESA& OECD, 2013: 1), although the number has been in decline from 2010-2013, going from 4.6 million to 3.6 million during this time period (UN-DESA & OECD, 2013).

Interestingly, when looking at the concentration of migration workers, one finds that “About half of all international migrants reside in ten countries. In 2013, the United States of America hosted the largest number of international migrants (45.8 million or 20% of the global total), followed by the Russian Federation (11 million), Germany (9.8 million), Saudi Arabia (9.1 million), the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom (7.8 million each), France (7.5 million), Canada (7.3 million), Australia and Spain (6.5 million each)” (OECD, 2013: 2).

Migrant Workers and Development

Migrant workers not only help their own familial economic situation, but their work also aids the development of the countries in which they work. For example, the International Labour Organization (2009), speaking on this issue, says that “Migrant workers contribute to development in origin countries by, among other things, alleviating pressures on labour markets, sending remittances home, acquiring increased skills, and making investments, all of which help to alleviate poverty. In destination countries, they contribute to development by meeting the demand for workers, increasing the demand for goods and services, particularly where they receive decent wages, and contributing their entrepreneurial skills” (3). With regards to this, they go on to say that “[i]n some of the most critical service areas for development and growth in origin and destination countries, women migrant workers predominate, for example, in nursing, domestic work, and care-giving” (3). Individuals may go to other countries because of more work, or, they might be able to get more money for their skills, compared to what they could get in their country of origin (ILO, 2009).

International Law for Workers’ Rights

There are many elements of international law that call for the rights of workers. One of the first places in international law that supports workers’ rights is the International Labour Organization. In terms of the ILO’s support for workers, “The Preamble to the 1919 Constitution of the International Labour Organization sets among its objectives the “protection of the interests of workers when employed in countries other than their own.” This has been reinforced by the 1944 Philadelphia Declaration and the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Furthermore, the Resolution on a fair deal for migrant workers adopted by the 92nd Session of the International labour Conference in 2004 stated that “a fair deal for all migrant workers requires a rights-based approach, in accordance with existing international labour standards and ILO principles” (ILO, 2009: III).

Protecting Migrant Workers

While there is substantial international human rights law to protect migrant workers, sadly, many of them are without rights in the countries in which they are working. It is necessary for the country of origin, as well as the host countries to also protect the human rights of migrant workers (ILO, 2009).

As the ILO (2009) explains, “Protecting the rights of migrant workers additionally benefits destination countries by preventing the development of an unprotected working underclass of migrants which harms national workers by undercutting their pay and working conditions. It is in the best interests of destination countries to prevent the emergence of migrant dependent economic sectors” (3).

In order to protect the rights of migrant workers, it is necessary to have different actors effectively communicate with one another. As the ILO (2009) explains, “[c]ountries can cooperate by, among other things, exchanging information with each other, engaging in regular dialogue and cooperation on labour migration policy for the protection of workers’ rights, and entering into bilateral, multilateral, and regional agreements” (5). It is necessary to cooperate and share information, particularly given the difficulties of monitoring the entire process regarding international migration; it is tougher to know the exact situation of a migrant worker while outside of the country, compared to when they are initially in (or when they return to) the country of origin (ILO, 2009).

Countries of Origin

As mentioned, human rights for migrant workers must be protected before they leave their country of origin, while they are working abroad, as well as upon their return to their country of origin. With regards to rights before leaving their country of origin, the ILO argues that it is fundamental to ensure that human rights are in place during this time. For example, the country of origin should help with regards to informing a migrant about the international migration process. This could be helping them understand what the process is like, any costs associated with it, potential challenges, risks (such as human trafficking), as well as resources for employment (ILO, 2009).

All of these points are important, and there has been attention to these issues. For example, with regards to risks for migrant workers, migrant workers can be made aware of the sorts of rights abuses that have happened to some who have went abroad. This could include being lied to about what sort of work they will be doing, work conditions, how much they will get paid (if they get paid at all), living conditions (ILO, 2009), as well as misinformation about the ability to leave. Along with these points, “Other abusive practices include giving migrant workers contracts which are not valid, are in a language they do not understand, or are substituted for different, less favourable contracts after they have departed. Beyond educating migrant workers about these unethical and exploitive practices, origin countries should enact legislation and regulations and enforce them to prevent such abuses from taking place and sanction those who have engaged in them” (ILO, 2009: 9). The countries of origin should work to ensure that those with whom the migrants (and they) are working with will not exploit the workers. This involves being active with regards to the cases of the migrant workers. The ILO (2009) argues that

“Origin countries should license and supervise private recruiters and sanction those who do not comply with minimum standards that protect the rights of migrant workers, including by prohibiting them from conducting business. They should require written employment contracts containing minimum standards of terms and conditions of employment for their citizens in the areas of wages, working hours and time off, safety and health, medical care, the right to retain their identity documents, and other important terms and conditions. Where employers provide housing and food, the written contracts should cover that as well and should contain minimum standards. If employers charge their workers for housing and food, the rates charged should be fair” (9).

And even after they leave, the country of origin should continue to work to ensure that the migrants are safe and protected in the host country. This can be done through communication, or through international or bilateral legal agreements. For example,

“Bilateral agreements with destination countries spelling out how responsibilities are to be shared can be a significant means of providing minimum standards and rights for a country’s citizens. Origin countries can negotiate for greater rights, particularly for less-skilled workers, which conform to international standards, with compliance guaranteed by the agreements. Exploitation can also be reduced by providing access to regular migration and the formal labour market. Agreements can contain provisions on such things as how origin and destination countries will cooperatively manage pre-departure and return processes, transfer social security earnings or allow portability of pensions. They can also contain dispute settlement procedures and remedies for violation of rights. These agreements are most effective when they contain specific mechanisms and procedures for resolving problems and grievances, such as monitoring missions or joint committees with representatives from the countries involved” (ILO, 2009: 10-11).

In addition, countries of origin can also provide representation in the host country, so as to help citizens of their country. They can also provide aid for the families of migrant workers (ILO, 2009). And when the migrant workers return, the country of origin can help by working to help find them employment. In addition, they can try to provide other support so that the migrant worker can stay and work internally, instead of possibly having to leave again (ILO, 2009).

Host Countries

Host countries also have a responsibility to ensure that migrant workers’ rights are not violated. But, counter to what some might think, their activity does not begin once the migrant worker is in their country. But rather, effective human rights protections by the host country should begin well before the migrant worker has entered into the host country. As the ILO (2009) explains, host countries “can provide information to origin countries about known, unethical recruiters and abusive employers, so that immediate preventive action can be taken. They can work with origin countries to establish computerized recruitment services that are easier to supervise, can more rapidly adapt to changing labour needs, and can protect against use by unethical recruiters and lessen their role in labour migration. Destination countries can also provide training and orientation in migrant’s home countries before they leave” (13). They too can set up international relations agreements with other countries to help protect migrant workers. Moreover, when the workers are in their country, they should actively protect workers from companies or predators looking to take advantage of these migrant workers. For example, the government can work to ensure safe and fair work conditions (ILO, 2009).

Returning Back to the Country of Origin

As migrant workers finish their employment in their host country, there are still many actions that both the host country, as well as the country of origin can take to ensure the rights of the migrant workers are protected. They can aid in helping the migrant worker get back home. In addition, they can provide support for a job, or housing if need be (ILO, 2009).

Cases of Human Rights Abuses

Yet despite these various options to better protect migrant workers, there are many cases of migrant workers facing human rights abuses when they go internationally to work. For example, John Bowe (2010) wrote on some of the rights violations that migrant workers heading to the United States have faced. These migrant workers were often approached by recruiters, and in order to get a job in the United States, were expected to pay thousand of dollars. Then, if a migrant were to come to the United States, as many have, the guarantee of a steady job is not there. For example, in one case, a worker found employment, but it was not long term. And while initial contracts signed in the county of origin were for years, the reality was quite different (Bowe, 2010). And often, it was up to the companies that they were hired to work for to decide how long the migrant would work for them, and also whether they would renew the migrant worker’s visa (Bowe, 2010: in Eitzen & Zinn, 2012: 60). And thus, these workers are often unsure about what their employment status will look like, and all the while, they are often stressing about repaying loans that they often had to take to get to the host country to work (Bowe, 2010).

In addition, in many cases (Global North and Global South states), the labor conditions for the workers are horrible. There are cases when companies do not respect worker’s rights, minimum wage, or other worker protections. For example, Bowe (2010) looks at the rights violations of migrant workers by the Global Horizons corporation in the United States. But they are far from the only company or case where rights violations exist.

There have been many discussions about the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar. Qatar was granted the rights to host the 2022 World Cup. And while they have been spending billions preparing for the games, many journalists and human rights activists have raised a number of issues with regards to how migrant workers have been treated in Qatar. For example, there have been a number of journalism pieces documenting these rights abuses.

NGOs and Migrant Workers

As a response to the various issues surrounding migrant workers, non-governmental organizations have been very active in working to help provide the necessary support to these individuals. There are many such groups working not these issues. And they are active to provide aid, educational support, information, as well as other forms of assistance. One such example is the Red Cross/Red Crescent. This organization has worked on migrant issues for years, and have been active in a number of countries. For example,

“From the beginning of 2011 more than 50,000 migrants have landed in southern Italy. The CRI has been the primary point of contact providing humanitarian assistance during landings and in the CRI Migrants Centres. The CRI assists migrants during their transfer from Sicily and Lampedusa to reception centres run by the authorities in other regions. In Sicily and Lampedusa, the CRI has been engaged in rescue operations during landings of vessels carrying migrants fleeing Libya or coming from Tunisia. The CRI was, during the peak of the crisis, providing 24 hours emergency humanitarian assistance with volunteers, doctors, nurses, logisticians, rescuers and ambulances on the wharf and delivering care at the Advanced Medical Post (PMA) set up the maritime station. The main activities consist of providing information, health care and socio-legal assistance to newcomers” (Red Cross, 2012: 7).

Another example is their work in Canada, where

“The Canadian Red Cross runs the “First Contact” Programme and it provides migrants with information on how to find affordable housing, process a refugee claim, secure employment, as well as how to apply for legal aid or social assistance. The “First Contact” Programme started in Toronto in 2002 and its goals are, inter alia, to reduce homelessness of refugee claimants and also to reduce the suffering, exploitation, trauma and marginalization experienced by those people” (Red Cross, 2012: 9).




Bowe, J. (2010). Bound for America. Mother Jones 35, May/June 2010.

Eitzen, D.S. & Baca Zinn, M (2012). Globalization: The Transformation of Social Worlds, Third Edition. Belmont, California. Wadsworth Cengage. 

ILO (2009). Protecting The Rights of Migrant Workers–A Shared Responsibility.

UN-DESA & OECD (2013). World Migration in Figures, pages 1-6.





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