Countries Must Cooperate to Facilitate Safe Migration for Workers

Countries Must Cooperate to Facilitate Safe Migration for Workers

Globally, marginalized workers have been especially hard hit by the novel coronavirus. Migrant workers in particular have experienced some of the harshest effects of COVID-19 and the related lockdowns, quarantines and travel restrictions.

Yet while the world has recognized “the bravery of frontline workers,” many of whom are migrants, “we must now turn that celebration into something that is meaningful and not just ephemeral,” says United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

We must ensure “fair and ethical recruitment, decent work, and access to health care and social protection without discrimination. It is also critical we promote financial inclusion of migrants and their families. We must address discrimination … migrants must not be stigmatized or denied access to medical treatment and other public services.”

Guterres spoke during release of the first UN Secretary General’s report on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Adopted in December 2018, the Global Compact sets out a cooperative framework for achieving safe, orderly and regular migration within a rights-based framework, and includes a process for implementation and review.

The report, part of the UN review process, focuses extensively on the effects of COVID-19 on the world’s 272 million migrants and the guidance the Global Compact offers in addressing the adverse effects on migrant workers.

Fewer Protections for Migrant Workers Under COVID-19

As borders and worksites were shut early this year, millions of migrant workers were stranded around the world, many trapped in crowded housing with no access to support, including access to food and other life-sustaining provisions. Many migrant workers were systematically denied social safety net protections like unemployment benefits or other forms of income support.

Others were forced to work in unsafe conditions, suffered from wage theft, and retaliation for speaking out about abuse. Origin countries frequently lack adequate health infrastructure, exposing those who returned to a greater risk of contracting COVID-19, or making it difficult for those who were infected to find care. Migrants returning in these conditions are also particularly vulnerable to exploitation, violence, stigma, discrimination and, without jobs, may be unable to support themselves or their families.

Although some governments took positive steps to voluntarily return migrant workers, according to the Global Compact report, many imposed even harsher restrictions. “The pandemic has been used by some [countries] to justify the increased and discriminatory use of immigration detention and to deport migrants without due process,” the report said.

The COVID-19 crisis also has worsened the situation for migrants in countries where they work. In Central Asia, the COVID-19 pandemic “exposed structural and institutional flaws in the way migration is managed in the region,” making conditions for migrant workers dire, according to a shadow report on implementation of the Global Compact in the Central Asian region. The shadow report cites such structural flaws as lack of work contracts that result in wage theft, no regulation of work hours and little or no access to health care or other social and legal protections. It was submitted to the UN by the Solidarity Center, the International Labor Initiatives (ILI), Insan Leilek and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights.

The pandemic is especially hard on women, including the 8.5 million migrant women in domestic work, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex migrants, the Global Compact report finds. Even as domestic violence is increasing during the pandemic, resources are being redirected away from sexual and reproductive health services. The Global Compact report points to the need for a gender-responsive, rights-based approach to migration all the more necessary.

Remove Barriers that Repress Migrant Workers’ Full Potential

Rooted in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and internationally agreed standards and frameworks, the Global Compact is grounded in rights-based policies and is a “call to build comprehensive, rights-based policies to ensure that migrants and their communities can thrive,” according to the report.

As such, “legislation should provide for ensuring the rights of migrants in accordance with international human rights standards, including fair and safe working conditions, the right to good rest, the right to access jobs without discriminatory procedures for obtaining the right to work,” according to a shadow report from Russian unions to the UN. “We believe that receiving countries should provide regulatory and visa flexibility for workers, especially during a pandemic.”

Noting the urgency for greater cooperation across borders during the COVID-19 crisis, including the integration of public health concerns into rights-based border governance, the Global Compact report recommends that member countries implement measures and practices in response to COVID-19 that ensure an inclusive public health response to suppress the virus and restart economies, protect migrants’ human rights and ensure the availability of lifesaving humanitarian assistance.

The report’s recommendations support the UN’s June 2020 Policy Brief: COVID-19 and People on the Move, which states that “the best way to recognize the important contribution made by people on the move to our societies during this crisis is to remove barriers that inhibit their full potential.

“This means facilitating the recognition and accreditation of their qualifications, exploring various models of regularization pathways for migrants in irregular situations and reducing transaction costs for remittances.”

Ultimately, as the report states: “The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity to reimagine human mobility for the benefit of all while advancing the central commitment of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind.” The report is in line with calls from the global labor movement, led by the International Trade Union Confederation, for a new social contract “between workers, government and business, which should include a floor of a universal labor guarantee for all workers.

“Implementing a New Social Contract would make sure that that rights are respected, jobs are decent with minimum living wages and collective bargaining, social protection is universal, due diligence and accountability are driving business operations, and that social dialogue ensures just transition measures for climate and technology.”

In short: A new social contract must include all workers, including migrants.

Report: Call to Action for Rights of People on the Move

Report: Call to Action for Rights of People on the Move

The freedom to speak, join unions and take part in community life are basic human rights that apply to all people—including migrant workers and refugees, panelists at a United Nations side event said this afternoon in New York City.

“Migrant workers and refugees don’t usually have access to justice, and so the lack of enjoyment of these rights has more of a negative impact on them than on the general population,” said Felipe Gonzalez Morales, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.

Gonzalez and other panelists took part in the event to launch a new report, Freedoms on the Move: The Civic Space of Migrant Workers and Refugees, by the Solidarity Center and CIVICUS. The report’s findings make clear that many migrant workers and refugees want to access their civic freedoms and do not want to remain on the margins. They want to have a say in their communities and their workplaces, and in the decisions that affect their lives.

(The report also is available in Spanish and French).

Through in depth surveys, Freedoms on the Move highlights the experiences of 1,000 migrant workers and refugees in Germany, Kenya, Jordan, Malaysia and Mexico who discuss the barriers to freedom of association, assembly and expression, and the factors enabling them to exercise those rights.

“Legislation in countries deny migrant workers the right to have access to freedom of association,” said Griet Cattaert, policy officer at the International Labor Organization. And because migrant workers often work in the informal economy, sometimes in “hidden work” like domestic workers in private homes, “it is much more difficult to organize themselves in unions,” she said.

(Watch the full event here).

Freedoms on the Move: An Urgent Call to Action

Neha Misra, Solidarity Center, migration, Freedoms on the Move report

“Migrant worker rights are not just good for them but their communities.”—Neha Misra Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

The global assaults on democracy and fundamental rights is an urgent call to action for unions and other civil society groups to include migrant workers and refugees in advancing these rights, panelists said.

In the report, CIVICUS and the Solidarity Center urge all states to create and maintain, in law and in practice, an enabling environment for the rights of migrant workers and refugees, in accordance with international laws and standards.

“Democratic society cannot thrive when entire populations of people excluded,” said Neha Misra, Solidarity Center senior specialist for migration and trafficking. “Migrant workers we talked to rightfully insisted their destination countries have much to gain from their presence. Migrant worker rights are not just good for them but their communities.”

“Freedom of association and expression are important for migrant workers because they are human rights,” said Crispin Hernandez, a migrant agricultural worker who helped his co-workers organize with the Workers’ Center of Central New York.

“It doesn’t matter where we come from, or our country of origin, or our gender. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what kind of work you do. It doesn’t matter what I do for a living. I am entitled to my rights. We are humans.”

Freedom to Form Unions Key to Migrant Worker Rights 

More than 258 million migrants, 164 million of whom are migrant workers, live outside their origin countries as global inequality and the search for decent work push workers to migrate far from their homes, and as war and economic crises force millions across borders.


Monami Maulik, international coordinator at the Global Coalition on Migration, discussed how the report builds on the recently negotiated Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, the first-ever UN global agreement on a common approach to international migration in all its dimensions.

“Fundamental to success of the Global Compact on Migration is the participation and engagement of migrant workers with unions and civil society, and so the success of implementing rights’ protections for migrant workers means we first must look at what’s happening to their freedom to organize,” she said.

Freedoms on the Move finds that “migrant workers and refugees must have the opportunity to come together, advocate for their well being without fear of reprisal and hold states accountable for delivering on their obligations under international laws,” Misra said.

Employer Harassment Major Barrier to Forming Unions

Griet Cattaert, ILO, Crispin Hernandez, NY Workers Center, migration, Solidarity Center, CIVICUS, migrant workers, Freedom on the Move report

Griet Cattaert and Crispin Hernandez discussed why human rights laws apply to migrant workers .Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

The report found that harassment or pressure from employers is the main obstacle for migrant workers seeking to form unions or otherwise exercise their freedom of association: 78 percent of respondents in Jordan, 66 percent in Kenya, 74 percent in Malaysia and 33 percent in Mexico.

More key findings from the report include:

  • Migrant workers believe the main limitation on their freedom of expression is the possibility of being fired from work, detained or deported, with wide variations by gender: 47 percent of women and 72 percent of men in Jordan; 62 percent and 71 percent respectively in Kenya; 50 percent and 41 percent in Malaysia, and 80 percent and 45 percent in Mexico.
  • Rates of participation in protests vary widely, from only 11 percent in Jordan and Mexico to 58 percent in Germany.
  • Refugees say a lack of resources is the major limitation that prevents people from associating and organizing.
Join Us Live Online for Freedoms on the Move!

Join Us Live Online for Freedoms on the Move!

Join Solidarity Center and CIVICUS Friday, October 18, at 3 p.m. EST for the launch of a new report, Freedoms on the Move: The Civic Space of Migrant Workers and Refugees, by CIVICUS and the Solidarity Center. Participants at the event will share findings and recommendations on civic space barriers for migrants and refugees.

Click here to see the event on Facebook Live.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants Felipe Gonzalez Morales will join other civil society activists to discuss how they are advancing freedom of association, expression and assembly for migrant workers and refugees. Panelists also include:

  • Griet Cattaert, International Labor Organization
  • Crispin Hernandez, Workers’ Center of Central New York
  • Neha Misra, Solidarity Center

Monami Maulik at the Global Coalition on Migration will moderate.

As globalization and the search for decent work push workers to migrate far from their homes, and as war and economic crises force millions across borders, there is limited data on whether and how migrant workers and refugees are able to exercise their fundamental civic freedoms.

Through two in depth surveys, one of migrant workers and another of refugees, Freedoms on the Move also explores the factors that make migrant workers and refugees more likely to try to assert their rights, the circumstances that make them more vulnerable to violations and abuses, and the perpetrators and enablers of denials of their rights.

Freedoms on the Move is an urgent call to action for unions and civil society advocating for civic freedoms in their countries. As the report states:

“International human rights law does not limit civil and political rights to citizens. Like everyone else, migrant workers and refuges should be able to enjoy the key civic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. For migrant workers and refugees, these freedoms offer protection against discrimination, marginalization and scapegoating, which commonly affect them in their host or destination countries. When the rights to association, peaceful assembly and expression are open to migrant workers and refugees, they can organize and act to uphold their interests in their workplaces and communities, influence public opinion and hold public officials accountable.”

Stop back to access the full report on October 10, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!

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