When addressing migration, governments must focus on human rights: “When you prioritize human rights, you naturally shift from criminalization and focus on rights-based approaches,” says Mishka Pillay, a migration and lived experience advocate and campaigner.
“Migration is historical, it’s natural it’s been here for centuries—and it needs to be normalized by countries.”
Approved by United Nations member states in 2018, the Global Compact for Migration reaffirms countries’ commitment to respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights for all migrants. In May, the International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) will assess progress on the compact and the Spotlight Report seeks to ensure that grassroots migrant perspectives on progress and challenges are central to the discussions.
“Morally and ethically it is imperative to listen to people’s lived experiences. Government needs to listen and learn how migration is affecting real people,” says Pillay, an author in the report.
The Global Coalition on Migration, which includes the Solidarity Center, and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung institute, released the report. Today’s launch emphasized the importance of migrants’ agency, including the agency of migrant workers, in the policy and process decisions that affect their lives, including in their workplaces.
Decent Work Key to Addressing Migration
A focus on decent work in origin countries “is necessary to break cycles of exploitation and prevent labor migration pathways from perpetuating global power and wealth imbalances,” writes Neha Misra, Solidarity Center global lead for migration and human trafficking. Misra co-authored the Spotlight Report article, “People Not Profit: Coherent Migration Pathways Centered in Human Rights and Decent Work for All.”
“For too long, failed foreign and trade policies have prioritized the interests of corporations and low-wage, export-oriented growth while actively undermining democracy and accountability, contributing to the push factors driving people to migrate,” the article states.
Shannon Lederer, AFL-CIO director of immigration policy and Yanira Merino, president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), are co-authors.
Among the report’s recommendations:
Migrant workers, regardless of status, must have rights in line with international labor standards for all workers
Migrants must have rights at international borders
There must be alternatives to detention of migrants
Migrants must have access to public services and social protections, regardless of status
Coherent policies must be developed for those migrating due to climate related factors
Countries must adopt regularization policies and rights-based regular migration channels—that allow migrants the freedom to move, settle, work and fully participate in society—over expanding temporary or circular work programs. Countries should promote regular migration pathways that ensure full worker rights, facilitate social and family cohesion, and provide options for permanent residence and meaningful participation in civic life.
Commenting on the report during the panel discussion, Fernando de la Mora, who is part of IMRF discussions through the Economic, Social, Human Rights and Humanitarian Section of Mexico’s UN mission, reiterated his government’s support for a commitment to decent work in origin and destination countries, and summed up the report’s goals this way:
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit workers hard—but women have especially suffered compared with men, experiencing higher rates of unemployment, discrimination and exposure to the virus, and skyrocketing rates of gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH), speakers said this week at a Solidarity Center panel. Unions are organizing to demand that government responses to the pandemic’s economic and social effects center on the needs and experiences of women workers, ensuring safety and respect for all workers.
“Women have suffered because most of the work they do is precarious”—Rose Omamo, Kenya
“Women have suffered because most of the work they do is precarious—they are informal workers, frontline workers,” said Rose Omamo, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metalworkers. Omamo explained how COVID-19 has shown the need to extend social protections like paid sick leave and health care to all workers, and to address issues affecting women in Kenya and worldwide. She shared that rape and sexual assault in the world of work has increased because of economic stress caused by the pandemic, including an increase in domestic violence and increased demands for sexual favors in order to obtain or keep a job. Kenyan unions are organizing to demand that social protections include access to reproductive health services in light of increased sexual violence, and are bargaining with employers to increase protections against GBVH in the workplace.
Omamo was among five women union leaders and Solidarity Center partners who took part in “Women Workers’ Voices and Participation on the COVID-19 Recovery Front Lines,” a virtual parallel event during the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) as part of the NGO CSW65 Virtual Forum.
Employers, Government Failing Women Workers in the Pandemic
Employers have used COVID-19 as an excuse to violate worker rights, says Cambodian union leader Ou Tepphallin.
Employers have taken advantage of the pandemic to exploit, abuse and lay off workers, panelists said. “Labor rights have been violated during COVID-19 as employers used the opportunity to exploit the system,” said Ou Tepphallin, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation.
Retail, hospitality and garment workers in Cambodia, the majority of whom are women, have not been provided adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) or measures to ensure their safety, and unscrupulous employers have taken advantage of the crisis to exploit and abuse workers. For example, workers in the hospitality sector report that entertainment venues have opened illegally during lockdown and forced workers to return to work. Some companies deliberately targeted older or less conventionally attractive workers for layoffs. Unions have been organizing to hold employers to account, negotiating for better protection measures, including protections from GBVH.
When women are in unions, they can speak out against mistreatment and come together to create solutions, says Honduran union leader Iris Munguia.
In Honduras, the impact of the pandemic collided with ecological and social crises. The devastation caused by two hurricanes in November 2020 left many women homeless and struggling to support their families, said Iris Munguía, women’s coordinator of the Honduran Federation of Agro-industrial Unions (FESTAGRO). In addition, women experience extremely high rates of GBVH, which is treated with impunity in Honduras. More than 30 women have been murdered in 2021, and “there are no investigations of these murders,” Munguia said.
The combined crises have left women workers more vulnerable than ever to exploitation and abuse. The majority of workers laid off during the pandemic were women, and unions have been organizing to ensure women workers are at the bargaining table to win protections from employers, including access to childcare, adequate protective equipment and protections against GBVH at work. Unions in the agricultural sector are demanding that multinational companies do more to ensure greater safety on the job. Munguia discussed the power of union organizing, stressing that women in trade unions had the ability to speak out against mistreatment and come together to create solutions.
In Honduras, Munguía is part of a campaign for C190 ratification, while also training women to be part of negotiations with employers so they can advocate for contract clauses that benefit them, such as childcare and a violence-free workplace.
“We have a great advantage by being unionized,” she said. “Whenever we face discrimination, harassment, we can report it, denounce it, talk about it—and that opportunity is there because we are part of a union.”
‘We Have a Great Advantage: We Are in a Union’
UGTT’s Nadia Bergaoui shared images of women agricultural workers as she discussed the challenges they face at work.
In the face of such challenges, women have stepped up their efforts to achieve justice at the workplace, according to the panelists, including efforts to push their governments to ratify Convention 190. Adopted by the International Labor Organization in 2019, the convention seeks to end violence and harassment in the world of work, including gender-based violence.
Across Tunisia, where 500,000 women work in the informal agricultural sector, the Federation of Agriculture and the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) are working to end gender-based violence through awareness-raising programs that ensure women know their rights on the job and can speak out for safe conditions, especially on the dangerous transport to and from work, said Nadia Bergaoui.
Bergaoui, general secretary, media officer and women’s affairs officer of the Federation of Agriculture, said a union survey in 2020 found that more than half of women said they have faced verbal or physical abuse on the job, and lack access to paid time off, sick leave or health care. The union is organizing workers to demand safe transportation, protections against GBVH, PPE and access to social protections.
Unions in Kyrgyzstan are advocating for protections for women workers, says Gulnara Derbisheva.
Gulnara Derbisheva, director of Insan Leilek, discussed how unions in Kyrgyzstan are advocating for protections for women workers, including demanding that the government address the increase in GBVH during the pandemic by ratifying Convention 190. Unions, with Solidarity Center support, opened a women migrant worker center in Bishkek, where workers have reported increases in GBVH and other abuse on the job. She shared how she is working with unions to advocate for greater protections for women migrant workers, including ratification of C190.
“Unless we keep advocating, we will be in a standstill,” she said.
Protecting the rights of migrant workers must be an essential component of the United Nations Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration, according to union leaders who met recently in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to craft a worker rights agenda for inclusion in the global compact, the first inter-governmentally negotiated agreement to comprehensively cover all dimensions of international migration.
The December 1–2 meeting preceded a UN gathering to assess recommendations and discuss implementation of the global compact on migration. The 17 union leaders from across the Americas crafted a shared policy agenda and outlined plans to advocate within national and regional government bodies.
“It cannot be overstated how important the content of the compact will be in terms of creating policies that will affect economic inclusion,” says Neha Misra, Solidarity Center senior specialist for migration and trafficking. “This work will set the agenda for global action on migration and the role of displaced workers for at least the next decade. It is crucial that migrant workers, and the unions and worker centers that represent them, have a voice in the global compact negotiations process.”
Elena Villafuerte, PRODESC; Neha Misra, Solidarity Center; and María Carmen Molina from CSTS in Mexico were among panelists presenting labor’s joint position on labor migration.
In a panel presentation sharing labor’s joint position with UN participants, María del Carmen Molina, general secretary of the Confederation of Salvadoran Workers (CSTS), stressed the importance of protecting all workers’ rights, regardless of immigration status, and the responsibility of governments to ensure conditions so migration is by choice, not compulsion.
Misra and Solidarity Center partners from the Central American Regional Union Committee on Migration (Comité Inter-Sindical), ProDESC and Centro de Derechos del Migrante in Mexico took part in the civil society meetings prior to the UN’s formal session, and presented their recommendations to the full UN meeting December 4–6.
Union leaders also emphasized the need to ensure accessible pathways to regularization to ensure full rights for the world’s 150 million are migrant workers, and end the global expansion of abusive and exploitative labor migration programs. They agreed to take the issue of migrant worker rights back to their respective labor bodies to continue to educate and advocate on the issue.
The UN process to develop the global compact for migration began in April 2017. The UN General Assembly will hold an intergovernmental conference on international migration in 2018 with a view to adopting the global compact. Following the UN meeting, participants issued a joint statement summarizing their suggestions for implementing the global compact.
The Solidarity Center and allies throughout the international labor, human and women’s rights communities are campaigning for an International Labor Organization (ILO) convention to stop violence and harassment at work. As part of the process, begun many months ago, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is now spearheading efforts to lobby governments and employer organizations around the world for their input and support. (The ITUC campaign toolkit includes talking points, resources and tips for lobbying your government.)
Allies are building awareness for passage of a convention and distributing an ILO questionnaire to their government representatives soliciting comments and support in advance of a September 22 deadline. When ILO member states ratify a convention, they commit to applying it in national law and practice, and complaints can be made against countries for violations. In June 2018, the ILO International Labor Conference (ILC) will take up the issue.
Gender-Based Violence: Worse Without Freedom to Form Unions
Domestic workers, whose isolation in employer homes makes them especially vulnerable to abuse, are strongly championing its passage. Building on the tactics of their successful global campaign for the 2011 ratification of ILO Convention 189 covering domestic workers—the last convention the ILO passed—they are reproducing those steps to ensure support for a convention to end gender-based violence at work, says Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF).
“Gender-based violence is always worse when there is no freedom of association,” Solidarity Center Policy Director Molly McCoy said earlier this year. “When workers are not organized (in unions), they don’t have resources to tackle gender-based violence.” McCoy moderated a Solidarity Center panel in New York on gender-based violence at work in conjunction with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women meetings.
Gender-Based Violence Includes Physical, Mental Abuse
In a detailed report issued in advance of the 2018 ILO conference, the ILO describes gender-based violence as affecting both women and men, but notes that unequal status and power relations in society and at work often result in women being far more exposed to violence and harassment, which can be physical, psychological and sexual.
In addition, the ILO uses the term “world of work” for a proposed convention, because gender-based violence occurs not only in the physical workplace, but during the work commute, at work-related social events, in public spaces—the primary venue for informal workers such as street vendors—and in the home, in particular for domestic workers and teleworkers.
Addressing violence and harassment through an international standard is key to the objectives of achieving decent work for all and addressing gender inequality in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Goal 8 and Goal 5). A new standard would be preventative, by addressing negative societal and workplace cultures, and “should also be able to respond to the new challenges and risks which might lead to violence and harassment in the world of work, such as those arising from changing forms of work and technology,” according to an October 2016 report by the UN Meeting of Experts on Violence against Women and Men in the World of Work.
“Why does being low-wage and a migrant mean being sentenced to a lifetime of being separated from your family? It shouldn’t and doesn’t have to,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. Speaking at a United Nations meeting on migration today in New York, Bader-Blau contrasted the unchallenged right of capital to move freely across borders with the lack of rights and labor protections for migrant workers.
Being low-wage and a migrant should not mean being sentenced to a lifetime of being separated from your family–Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau Credit: Solidarity Center/Neha Misra
“We have not seen a commensurate expansion of the rights of people to go along with the incredible expansion of the rights of business, especially not for the migrant workforce. If we want to talk about the human rights of migrants, we really need to directly challenge those assumptions.”
Bader-Blau addressed the Fourth Thematic Event, “Contributions of Migrants and Diaspora to all Dimensions of Sustainable Development, including Remittances and Portability of Earned Benefits.” The July 23–25 meeting is among six thematic sessions held between April 2017 and November 2017 to gather substantive input and concrete recommendations to inform the development of the UN Global Compact on Migration.
Migrant Workers Should Be Free to Bargain with Employers
Neha Misa, Solidarity Center migration and human trafficking senior specialist, also spoke at the consultation, where she asked participants to “imagine if migrant workers could fully participate in the right to organize and collectively bargain.”
“We have seen time and time again how collective bargaining agreements provide migrant workers with the ability to earn a decent wage, and they may even be used to lower the costs of recruitment and provide migrant workers with more safe and secure ways to remit their earnings back home. Collective bargaining agreements also help to protect women migrant workers from gender-based violence and other forms of discrimination in the workplace.”
Misra, who also presented on behalf of the Women in Global Migration Network (WIMN), says “women in migration are not ‘vulnerable,’ in need of ‘rescue’—they are advocates for their rights and agents of change.” Current migration policies must be changed from being about ‘protecting women’ to ‘protecting women’s rights,’ she says.
Misra detailed a list of recommendations for inclusion in the UN Global Compact, including embedding core labor and human rights standards. (Read her full statement and recommendations here.)
Many workers migrate for jobs because none exist in their home countries—Jonatan Monge Loría, chief coordinator of CI-Regional. Credit: Solidarity Center/Neha Misra
Addressing labor migration also means attending to the conditions that foster this phenomenon from origin countries, says Jonatan Monge Loría, chief coordinator of the Central American Regional Inter-Union Committee for the Defense of the Migrant Workers Rights (CI-Regional).
“Many dependent economies lack productive development policies that generate the quantity and quality of jobs that are required for decent work and livelihoods that sustain families,” says Loría. “It is no secret that poor development conditions and lack of job opportunities in origin countries are the trigger for this type of migration.”
Loría spoke on behalf of CI-Regional, a Solidarity Center partner, and the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA/CSA) and the Trade Union Council for Technical Assistance. (See Loría’s full remarks in English and Spanish.)
“Governments must move beyond an emphasis on temporary migration programs that restrict workers’ ability to exercise their rights—from freedom of association and voting rights to family unification—to regular migration programs that allow for visa portability, the ability to change employers, exercising political and social rights, freedom of movement, family unity and pathways to residency and citizenship in destination countries.” (Read Ryan’s full statement here.)
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