Dispelling the migrant myth

Recent media buzz has sparked the latest global debate on migrant workers. Poverty and the decent work deficit are the two main reasons these workers cross borders in search of better lives, and most often they will take any job they can find, no matter how dirty or dangerous. But the crux of the debate lies in the extent of their contributions - and as a result the level of responsibility to be undertaken by the host countries for their labour rights. ILO specialist on workers' activities Luc Demaret and senior migration specialist Patrick Taran weigh in on the current state of play for migrant workers, and in doing so separate fact from fiction in the latest chapter of the migrant debate.

It's no surprise to learn that most industrialized economies would be significantly compromised if not crippled without the help of a strong migrant workforce. But do these migrant workers and their families receive their fair share in return?

According to a January 2006 press agency report, some experts believe the British economy and its public services would collapse without the immigrants who have entered the country illegally. And in October 2005, a headline in the Korea Times read: "Foreigners contribute to the Korean economy". According to that daily, "they have become the spine of corporate Korea". More recently, a Madrid correspondent of the Financial Times (26 April 2006) stated that new demand for housing generated by immigrants has been decisive in sustaining the construction industry boom in Spain. And last year in that country, a tripartite agreement between government, employers and workers enabled the regularization of nearly 700,000 migrant workers.

It's well known that immigrants have always given a lot back to their countries of origin, often at considerable and sacrificial cost to themselves. There are roughly 86 million migrant workers in the world today, with innumerable reports as to the amounts they transfer "back home". Latest estimates talk about US$160 billion a year. Only oil revenues do better in currency exchange; that figure, too, is three times the global amount of development aid. But generally, the contribution of immigrants - including immigrants in irregular situations - to the economy of the host country is often overlooked or even denied.

Still, since it is known that migrant workers send on average 13 per cent of their income back to their country of origin, that means they spend 87 per cent in the host country. If you do the sums, starting with the total amount of transfers, the contribution of migrant workers to host countries worldwide has a value of more than US$1 trillion. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the ILO state in a recent publication: "Numerous studies show that migrants fill vital jobs unwanted by natives, and that their presence, activity and initiative create additional employment" ( Note 1).

Myth no. 1: Migrants are a burden to host economies

"The perception that migrants represent a financial burden on host countries is not sustained by research," says Brunson McKinley, IOM Director-General (International Herald Tribune, 24 June 2005). For example, the UK Government has calculated that in 1999 and 2000, migrants established in the United Kingdom added US$4 billion (£2.2.billion) net to the budget - that is, they paid more in tax and social security contributions than they received in benefits. And the Institute for Public Policy Research found in a recent study that the contribution of immigrants to the public purse, which represented 8.8 per cent of the total in 1999 and 2000, is now up to more than 10 per cent. In Germany, the average immigrant makes a positive net contribution of over US$60,000 during his or her lifetime. In Spain this year, 25 per cent of construction revenues will come from migrant workers, for whom over 170,000 new houses have been built. In the United States, over the course of one year immigration generated extra national revenue of US$8 billion (IOM, World Migration Report 2005).

If labour migration is so important to host countries today, it could well become indispensable to some in future - to the point where many people are already sounding the alarm as to the risks of a "brain drain" that could damage developing countries.

In a Green Paper published in January 2005, the European Commission notes that, all things remaining equal, the European Union population aged under 25 will diminish by 20 million between 2010 and 2030. If present trends are confirmed, by the year 2050 Italy will have seen its population level diminish by 28 per cent, and Spain by 24 per cent. In order to maintain their present population levels, the four largest European countries (Germany, France, United Kingdom and Italy) would need a total of 700,000 immigrants each year rather than the 230,000 they receive today. And if they want to preserve their present levels of active population and pension age, they will need to welcome altogether over a million migrant workers every year. A simulation exercise carried out by the ILO indicates that without immigration, European living standards in 2050 will be only 78 per cent of what they are today

The Russian Federation, already home to the second largest number of migrants worldwide after the United States, faces a 750,000 fall in its workforce this year and a 6-million drop by 2010. In the United States, the National Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2010 there will be 10 million unfilled jobs, particularly in low-wage service industries. While migration flows of such magnitude may be unlikely, it is clear that migration will be part of the solution to maintaining and improving living standards in the industrialized world. It will also remain a question of survival for millions of people in the developing world.

Myth no. 2: Migration is a choice

As IOM's Brunson McKinley points out, "An end to the fruitless debate over whether or not to have migration is long overdue. We have migration. We will continue to have migration. Our choice lies in the policies we develop and pursue to channel migration into safe, orderly, humane and productive avenues that benefit the individuals and home and host societies" (International Herald Tribune, 24 June 2005).

To underscore that sentiment, the President of Mexico Vicente Fox, on an official visit to the United States during May 2006, said, "It is a priority today for governments to recognize the urgency of finding mechanisms and methods which guarantee an immigration that is safe, an immigration that respects human rights and the right to work" (Agence France Presse, 24 May 2006).

Much remains to be done on these issues. Looking at the situation of workers in 137 countries, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in a report published in Geneva in June 2006 notes that migrants are particularly vulnerable to violations of union rights and rights at work. A similar warning was sounded two years ago when the ILO reported to the 2004 International Labour Conference that "for an unacceptably large proportion of migrants, working conditions are abusive and exploitative, and may be characterized by forced labour, low wages, poor working environment, a virtual absence of social protection, the denial of freedom of association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion - all of which rob workers of the potential benefits of working in another country."

Although research confirms that the industrialized countries are going to have to look to immigration for the sake of their own economies, this does not detract from the need to reduce the decent work deficit in developing countries where workers often have no choice but to go into exile if they want their families to survive. But what is also needed is that the human rights of migrant workers, the principles of equality of opportunity and treatment and fundamental labour standards should be respected in the destination countries. Only this can maximize the potential that migration holds for both the countries of origin and the destination countries, as well as for the workers themselves.

The multilateral framework on migration recently published by the ILO (see sidebar) can be a useful tool in helping government, employer and worker organizations reach these goals. As the Swiss sociologist Max Frisch famously said about his country's immigrants: "We called for workers, and there came human beings." Whether past or future, at the heart of migration lie the legitimate aspirations of men and women for social justice.

New labour migration policy handbook

It explores the issues affecting labour migration policy today, such as the protection of migrant workers, benefits of organized labour migration, effective administration of labour migration, foreign worker admission policies, post-admission policies, irregular labour migration and inter-state cooperation.

According to Ibrahim Awad, Director of the ILO's International Migration Programme, "The biggest challenge today is to ensure access to regular, legal channels for labour migration, and thus prevent abuse, exploitation and trafficking."

The publication was launched at the 14th OSCE Economic Forum in Prague this May and was prepared by decision-makers and labour migration practitioners in the OSCE area and in countries served by the IOM and ILO. It draws in part on insights from the ILO's new Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration included in its Plan of Action adopted in 2005, which is comprised of principles, guidelines and best practices to assist constituents in developing and improving labour migration policies. Listed in the Handbook are 30 ILO Conventions of direct relevance to migrant workers.

"Countries which have policies that prevent discrimination and allow for better integration of migrant workers are much more successful in gaining full and productive participation in the labour market," said Awad. "To protect migrant workers' rights and maximize the positive effects of migration, the answer is not stricter policies but better policies."

Russian Federation commits to migration policy overhaul

Apriority issue for the Programme of Cooperation between the ILO and the Russian Federation, signed at this year's International Labour Conference and in effect from 2006 to 2009, is migration management.

In the early 1990s, the Russian Federation became a major actor on the international labour migration scene as a receiving, sending and transit country. The Federal Migration Services estimates that there are now 500,000 migrants in regular situations and between 5 and 14 million undocumented immigrants in Russia.

The Programme of Cooperation stresses the need to further improve national legislation as well as international and bilateral mechanisms aimed at regularizing and preventing abuse of migrant workers. In addition, the Programme will address internal migration in the Russian Federation to promote labour force mobility and create a more flexible labour market.

Note 1- Handbook on establishing effective labour migration policies in countries of origin and destination. OSCE, IMO and ILO, Geneva, 2006.