For millions of migrants, a new Convention

The UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families entered into force on 1 July 2003. More than 10 years in the making, the new Convention represents a major step in efforts to improve the lives of the world's vast mobile workforce. ILO senior migration specialist Patrick Taran, who instigated the global campaign for ratification, tells World of Work what the Convention does, who it concerns and how it will make a difference in peoples' lives.

World of Work: What is the world's migrant population today and how many are migrant workers?

Taran: Some 175 million people live and work outside their country of origin. The ILO estimates that a large majority of these, or about 12 million, are migrant workers or members of their families. This number could well double in the next quarter century. Many others are permanent immigrants who migrated for employment in immigration countries.

WoW: What problems do they face?

Taran: Despite being of vital economic importance - migration not only provides individuals with an income, but also produces billion dollar remittances to their home countries - migrant workers are often considered cheap, flexible labour, and lack basic legal protection. Irregular migrant workers are especially vulnerable because the threat of apprehension and deportation thwarts unionizing and impedes exposure of dangerous working conditions. Women, who make up 70 per cent of the migrant workforce in some countries, are more often employed in the informal sector, and in individualized work environments where there are few possibilities to establish networks of information and social support.

WoW: Aren’t there already two ILO Conventions on migration?

Taran: Yes, there are ILO Conventions, the ILO Migration for Employment Convention, 1949 ( No. 97) and the ILO Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 ( No. 143), which have been on the books for over 25 years. They have been ratified by 42 and 18 ILO member States respectively, and provide a basic framework for national legislation and practice on labour migration. They stipulate that States actively facilitate fair recruitment practices and transparent consultation with their social partners, reaffirm non-discrimination and establish a principle of equality of treatment between nationals and regular migrant workers in access to social security, conditions of work, remuneration and trade union membership. The new UN convention develops these instruments further, and can be seen as complementary to them. It seeks to guarantee migrants basic human rights, and works to ensure that all migrants, legal or illegal, as well as their families, have access to a minimum degree of protection. In the countries where the Conventions’ provisions are applied, the large numbers of men, and especially women, who work in the informal sector can also look forward to better protection. The new Convention also recommends measures to eradicate clandestine movements of migrants.

WoW: Eradicating irregular labour migration, isn’t that quite a tall order?

Taran: The Convention proposes that States should take action against the dissemination of misleading information on emigration and immigration, and to detect and prevent clandestine movements of migrant workers. In this way, the convention discourages illegal migration, whilst seeking fundamental rights for all.

WoW: And how will you enforce the convention?

Taran: All countries that have ratified are legally bound by the Convention. In addition the application of the Convention will be monitored by a committee of ten experts elected by the states that have ratified, forming the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

WoW: So, who has ratified the Convention?

Taran: 22 primarily emigration countries, i.e. those where migrants originate, have already ratified the Convention¹, with another 10 having signed - the preliminary step to ratification.² At present, none of the world’s major host countries of migrants and immigrants have ratified. There were few ratifications at all until 1998 when a Global Campaign was launched by a unique coalition of UN agencies, including the ILO, and international labour, church, human rights and migrant NGOs. Since then ratifications have tripled.

WoW: There’s huge demand for migrant labour in these countries - won’t economic forces continue to shape migration behaviour?

Taran: For the ILO, a “win-win” sustainable migration regime entails meeting looming demands for labour, both in Europe and North America and in Africa, Asia and Latin America, whilst putting in place policies and structures to properly regulate and manage migration. This requires a significant degree of social consensus and involvement from the parties most directly affected by labour migration, workers and employers. As ILO Director General Juan Somavia said, “an international consensus is emerging that regulation of international labour migration cannot be left solely in the hands of national interests and market mechanisms. Rather, it requires organization through bilateral and multilateral agreements and adherence to international standards”.

WoW: So you feel that progress is being made?

Taran: Certainly, the new Convention, along with the existing ILO Conventions, together provide a comprehensive “values-based” definition and legal basis for national policy and practice, and serve as tools to encourage States to establish or improve national legislation in harmony with international standards. The protection and structure offered by these instruments go well beyond providing a human rights framework. Numerous provisions in each add up to a comprehensive agenda for national policy and for consultation and cooperation among States on labour migration policy formulation, exchange of information, providing information to migrants, orderly return and reintegration.

Our work at the ILO also continues. An ILO Regional Tripartite Meeting on Challenges to Labour Migration Policy and Management in Asia met on 30 June-1 July in Bangkok to assess the opportunities and challenges facing countries in the region. New activities are getting underway to support empowerment and improvement of conditions for specific groups, in particular women migrant domestic workers. And labour migration will be the topic of the General Discussion at the 2004 International Labour Conference in Geneva in 2004. Given the high level tripartite participation from all 176 member States of the ILO, this discussion may be the closest we will get to a world conference on migration in this decade. Our agenda includes labour migration in the era of globalization, policies and structures for more orderly migration for employment, and the improvement of protection for migrant workers.

Joint Global Action

The Executive heads of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) signed a joint statement on 1 July welcoming the entry into force:
“The Convention recognizes that certain basic human rights -defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights-apply to all migrant workers and their family members, regardless of status. It delineates rights applying to migrants in both regular and irregular situations, setting minimum standards of protection with regard to civil, economic, political, social and labour rights, recognizing that migrant workers are human beings with roles and responsibilities beyond the labour and economic context. Based on earlier ILO Conventions, it extends the legal framework for international migration, treatment of migrants, and prevention of exploitation and irregular migration. It covers the entire migration process: preparation, recruitment, departure and transit; stay in States of employment; and return to and resettlement in original homelands.”

The statement also expressed the 4 agencies’ “commitment to work towards increased collaboration and joint activities in the field of migration and human rights, in areas such as generating data and research on migration, on providing technical cooperation and capacity building for government officials and other actors, in addressing abuses of migrants in situations of trafficking and forced labour, and in preventing discrimination and xenophobia against migrants.”