“The assumption is that once you’re granted refugee status, you’re going to be in the country for some time. As a result, you should not be denied from earning a living,” said David Welsh, Solidarity Center director for Southeast Asia programs.
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.
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.
Freedoms on the Move: An Urgent Call to Action
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
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 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.
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.”
The toxic spread of xenophobia, racism, misogyny and fear marginalizes millions of migrant workers and refugees—further disenfranchising people whose jobs do not lift them from poverty, afford them safe workplaces or uphold their dignity. The Solidarity Center is fighting this ugly trend through programs that recognize the human rights of workers, support their dreams of a better life and ensure their safety on the road and at their destination.
In 2015, more than 240 million people were international migrants, most having bravely risked the unknown for an opportunity at a better future or to escape violence, repression and injustice at home. This mass movement of people is the backbone of wealth created in the global economy, and it has the potential to be a positive force in the fight against poverty and inequality.
Labor migration—which accounts for 150 million international migrants—generates billions of dollars in economic activity every year. For individuals, a job in another country, under the right circumstances, can provide a life- and family-sustaining career. Hundreds of thousands of African workers who cross borders on the continent, for example, moving means finding paid work where none exists at home. Meanwhile, another 65 million people globally have fled tragedy, persecution and war, uprooting their families to seek what most people want: a stable, safe life.
Despite their varied motivations for leaving, these women and men have one thing in common: They all deserve respect, decent work and dignity.
The Solidarity Center works around the world to ensure that the rights of migrant workers and refugees of any category are respected, and partners with unions and worker-rights organizations to extend workplace protections to all workers. Together, we focus on creating safe migration processes for workers, including greater regulation of labor recruiters and the elimination of recruitment fees to prevent debt bondage. We also support the creation of networks among partners in origin and destination countries to ensure that migrant workers are protected along their journey. In 2016, we had migrant rights-supporting programs in 21 countries, reaching more than 15,000 workers.
The Solidarity Center also engages with partners to defend against xenophobia, racism and discrimination toward migrant workers, advocating for equal treatment and full rights for all workers. In addition, the Solidarity Center is exploring how unions and labor-support organizations may help promote integration of refugees and displaced persons into labor markets, breaking down the artificial categories used to divide workers, degrade working conditions and lower wages.
In Mexico, the Solidarity Center and its partners organize migrant workers, in their communities and prior to departure, helping them know and defend their rights, and resist rampant exploitation in the labor recruitment system.
The Solidarity Center has partnered with unions and worker associations in the Dominican Republic to organize Haitian migrant workers and their descendants, who work in agriculture, domestic work, construction and as market vendors. We have supported trainings on worker rights and the legal processes to regularize their status in the country.
Also in the Americas, we support migrant agricultural workers in Costa Rica from Nicaragua and Panama. These workers, who occupy the most precarious jobs, are legally excluded from the rights that other workers enjoy. We help them as they build new unions, promote migrant worker leaders and push for collective bargaining agreements—establishing wages that can lift them out of poverty.
In Thailand, we support workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar—fleeing poverty, conflict, repression and climate change—by helping unions and nongovernmental organizations develop capacity to represent migrant worker and refugee populations, and ensure their access to labor rights.
The Solidarity Center-supported online labor rights portal, Wedabima in Sri Lanka was accessed by users more than 250,000 times across 140 countries between April and September 2016. Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans working abroad accessed the Sinhala-language website, including those working in South Korea (73,933 sessions); Kuwait (46,827 sessions); Qatar (33,317 sessions); the United Arab Emirates (27,468 sessions); Israel (16,950 sessions); and Saudi Arabia (10,272 sessions).
The Solidarity Center also fights human trafficking around the world. For example, we assisted the repatriation of migrant workers who had been trafficked to Malaysia from Indonesia, and helped—in collaboration with the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (SBMI) and Jakarta Legal Aid Association—Indonesian seafarers who had been trafficked onto foreign fishing vessels in Trinidad and Tobago win restitution.
The Solidarity Center provides pre-departure training and other resources to workers in Kyrgyzstan who emigrate to Russia in search of jobs. Our programs and materials explain the legal rights of migrant workers, the conditions they may encounter as migrant workers, and sources of assistance if they encounter problems.
And in January 2017, the Solidarity Center convened more than 130 union leaders, migrant worker rights advocates and international human rights officials from nearly two dozen countries and 57 organizations in South Africa for the conference, “Achieving Fair Migration: Roles of African Trade Unions and Their Partners,” to raise migrant worker voices, assess the challenges faced by migrant workers, share strategies for empowering them and map out plans for changing policies and laws to provide migrant workers fundamental workplace rights. (See also the AFL-CIO statement, “Attacking Immigrants and Refugees Hurts All Working People.”)
We are working on the frontlines with migrant workers, standing up for opportunity, dignity, fair economies and worker rights. Will you help us do more? Your donation will support our redoubled efforts in 2017 to fight dangerous trends to diminish worker rights.