#14_Between a rock and a hard place: Labour migration and workers’ rights

While for many people the experience of moving across borders is beneficial for personal development, inter-cultural learning, innovation and similar positive things, not all of these movements happen to be voluntary; and not everybody weighs the social, cultural, and economic opportunities of cross-border movements in the same way against their possible costs and burdens. Especially, labour migration has been a controversial and even dividing political issue in many countries for years now. In the last decade, several high-income countries such as the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, or the USA, have seen movements articulating a pronounced rhetoric of xenophobia directed against migrants as well as people with a migration background. In public debates, heated up by such a toxic rhetoric, the various phenomena related to the cross-border movement of persons are often confused obscuring the real size of the migration phenomenon as well as its multi-faceted and multi-causal nature.

One first step to cool down heated debates about labour migration is simply to avoid mixing up all sorts of migration-related phenomena into one single category. Rather, the various circumstances of cross-border movements need to be distinguished carefully: First, it is helpful to distinguish between those situations in which people experience a recent migration episode from those situations in which the migration event as such is something of a more or less distant past as in the cases of second and third generation migrants or even residents with foreign ancestors. Second, migration spells differ by the length of the cross-border movement which may be of a short duration below one year or endure an entire lifetime. Similarly, it is useful to distinguish migration by its various societal drivers and individual reasons. Of course, those leaving their country voluntarily for seeking work abroad need to be distinguished from those people who flee their homes because of political conflicts, wars, and disasters. And, some migrant workers just may not find adequate employment that earns them a living in their home country (“the push”), while others may be hired to fill other country’s skill and labour shortages from the outside (“the pull”).

To get a rough idea of the relative weight of these various circumstances, a look into the data is of help (See Migration Data Portal; International organization for migration (IOM) World migration report 2020; UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division). Between 2017 and 2019, with a global population well over 7,3 billion people, the number of the world’s international migrants, i.e. all persons who have changed their country of usual residence, has increased from 258 million to 272 million people (e.g. Migration Data Portal). To these figures, the number of forcibly displaced people or refugees could be added. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), reports that the number of 43.3 million forcibly displaced people in 2009 has increased to 79.5 million by the end of 2019 (UNHCR, 2020). This number also includes internally displaced people, i.e. those 50.8 million people forced to move within their country, as a result of persecution, conflict, or generalized violence and disasters (Internal displacement monitoring centre; IDMC, 2020). Although, globally, migration is a growing phenomenon, the latter figure implies that most migration movements happen between neighbouring countries or within certain regions (such as the European Union, for example); long-distance migration between continents (with some notable exceptions) is rare (e.g. Pries, 2019). Not the entirety of migrants and displaced persons is counted as migrant workers who are identified as persons born in another country than their country of residence, aged 15 years and older, and actually having or seeking a job. According to the ILO global estimates the number of migrant workers is 164 million persons (ILO 2018).

Also with an eye on the violation of labour standards and workers’ rights, it becomes important to distinguish carefully the many different situations under which migrant workers perform their jobs. Such a situational perspective starts from the life-world of workers (and employers, for that matter) in order to capture the qualities of migrant work experiences (e.g. Thompson, Newsome, & Commander, 2013) as well as their economical, social, cultural, and political effects. In the labour market, there might be labour migrants experiencing no labour standards violations at all, for example those who are enjoying the benefits of being sent abroad by a large multinational or do a self-realizing work trip because they are attracted by the educational institutions and living conditions in high-income countries. At the same time, other workers with a migration background experience discriminatory and unequal treatment although they are formal citizens of the country they are working in. The latter happens where patterns of discrimination against a worker’s ethnic, cultural, religious, or racial background persist, for example for black communities in Western welfare states. And then there are those groups of migrant workers who are forced to leave their home country for reasons of survival. This migrant workforce experiences various sorts of the most extreme forms of labour standard violations, such as forced and slave labour, human trafficking of children and women, and all sorts of cruel abuses one can imagine. In this context, it is relevant to remember that the precarious situation of many migrant workers often includes a dimension of informality, i.e. migrant workers without an officially recognized status (“illegal migrants”) often belong to the most vulnerable groups in the labour market experiencing exploitative working conditions, and a de facto denial of their representation rights. Still another situation occurs where workers might be temporarily engaged for working in a different country, but are facing various workers’ rights violations in the process of being posted abroad (s. Posted work in Europe).

Looking beyond those individual situations implies the question about the origins and sources of labour standard violations and their connection to vulnerable groups in the labour market more generally. For some observers, labour migration transposes and exposes the more general problem of an increased vulnerability of workers in today’s directly and indirectly transnationalized labour markets within the broader societal, economic and geopolitical contexts of globalization (e.g. Sassen, 2014). In such a reading, the current situation of migrant workers’ rights just exemplifies how many workers around the globe are stuck in jobs with low working and employment conditions, toil in high-risk jobs, enjoy less health and safety protection and are not covered by collective bargaining, even if they are not leaving their home countries. For one part, this is a reminder on the huge gaps in economic development between countries, bridged by internationally oriented value creation arranged by transnational economic units such as the MNCs and their global production networks and enabled by the more or less free movement of capital. At the same time, such a view also acknowledges the bifurcated and fragmented labour market realities even in high-income countries (e.g. Appelbaum & Schmitt, 2009; Palier, 2019). Both developments are mirrored in the (non-)movement of workers stuck between a rock and a hard place.

How immobile ever labour is assumed to be, where work becomes disembedded from its societal grounding, commodified, and expelled, there are also those actors capable of mobilizing financial resources across borders in order to benefit from arbitrage on lower standards. The accompanying materialization of geopolitical, ecological and social risks results in disruption, division, and displacement increasing the pressure on working conditions and “pushing” people out of their home countries. For example, think about large agricultural corporations occupying the land for cash crops in the Global South which leave local peasants with not much choice rather than to leave for the next big city and from there to other countries (e.g. Sassen, 2014; Ponte, 2019). Maybe they end up becoming a fruit and vegetables picker in one of the Southern European greenhouse plantations. Such a cycle of displacement may include better working conditions in local subsidiaries of large multinational firms, at least compared to the average prevailing in the country of concern otherwise. And more jobs may also be created in supplying industries and services. However, the labour displacing potential of such activities may undercut the overall labour standards and the future potential for lifting these, because local economies become locked-in into inferior and dependent positions in global production networks hard to overcome by strategies of industrial and social upgrading later on (Scherrer, 2018; on upgrading see Ponte, 2019); also due to the loss of capacities for development (“brain drain”). The “freedom” of moving turns into a last rescue to flee from such conditions; even the lowest standards abroad promise gains that are better than nothing at all.

Against the background of these considerations, the current situation of migration policies in the high-income countries is largely tolerating a situation in which the human rights of migrant workers are often sidestepped in practice. One indicator is for example that the respective ILO conventions which are setting basic rules and protections for migrant workers’ rights have only been ratified by a minority of member states. The ILO Migration for Employment Convention (ILO C°97) has been ratified by 50 member states (among them also a couple of major European destinations for migrant workers), whereas the accompanying Migrant workers convention (ILO C°143) has just been ratified by 25 states (just a handful of European countries and almost no major destination of labour migrants in high-income countries). De facto, the migrants’ rights – in principal, universal entitlements of individuals – are traded-off against the single nation states’ sovereign right in controlling the flow of people in and from their territories (e.g. Ruhs, 2012).

In such a migration regime the political authority and power over territory prevails in most high-income countries by granting differing rights and entitlements to migrant groups sorted by their expected contributions to a country’s welfare. Preferred are young, high-skill workers contributing to further economic development over low-skill workers who are expected to contribute less and more at risk to benefit from social security systems (for the academic controversy around this trade-off see Ruhs, 2012; Cummins & Rodríguez, 2010). Clearly, in such a regime the migrant workforce is made subject to economizing on the value of their work as an economic resource contributing to growth in the countries of destination and development in the countries of origin (money remittances, acquired links and skills). How the pie is distributed between states and who may benefit from such a migration regime within home and host countries has still to be examined in more detail. However, risks are high that in some parts migrants may be squeezed out to the maximum to the benefit of some groups of residents, e.g. employers benefiting from the cheap labour of low-wage migrants with an inferior endowment of rights. Within such a migration regime, labour inspection is relegated to check for migrant workers’ legal status and work permits rather than controlling for the inferior working and employment conditions in the workplaces they are working in. Implicitly, and in contrast with stated goals and intentions, in such a regime the inferior formal rights are transformed into a practical situation in which migrants with a precarious status become highly vulnerable to informality, organized crime and other forms of severe exploitation.

This situation raises difficult ethical questions and dilemmas about how to close these gaps in the global governance of migration policy for upholding migrant workers’ rights. Whether the current policy qualifies as a “fair deal” for migrants is highly doubtful, at least for those societies taking seriously their own criteria of inalienable individual human rights as the fundamentals of democracy (e.g. Bertram, 2019). In addition, and reflecting upon their responsibility for the current state of affairs in the global economy (e.g. Pogge, 2005; Young, 2004), also for the host societies themselves such a discrimination might backfire by undermining societal cohesion and a civic culture based on social justice (e.g. Hess & Kasparek, 2019). Unfortunately, this unsatisfying situation is not easily resolved in the near future. For one, civic society’s pressure is weak, also because migrant workers’ self-help and organizing are forms of collective action extraordinarily difficult to achieve without further support. Up until now independent migrant workers’ organization and campaigns have been rather transitory and local phenomena, with some notable exceptions where these are part of a broader movement for migrants’ rights ( e.g. in the U.S. Milkman, 2011; in France Mouvement des sans-papiers). In addition, and for the foreseeable future, adequate organizational and institutional responses may be found wanting as well. Of course, a couple of recent initiatives favour what has been called a rights based approach emphasizing migrant workers’ protection and a multilateral collaboration to deal with unequal development (ILO, 2006; ILO, 2017), but several countries have chosen just to opt-out of these largely non-binding initiatives. In any case, the protection of migrant workers’ rights and the improvement of their working conditions requires new and innovative solutions more than ever.

Appelbaum, E. & Schmitt, J. (2009). Low-wage work in high-income countries: Labor-market institutions and business strategy in the US and Europe’. Human Relations, 62: 12, 1907-1934.
Bertram, C. (2019). The openness-rights trade-off in labour migration, claims to membership, and justice. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 22(2): 283-296.
Cummins, M. & Rodríguez, F. (2010). Is there a numbers versus rights trade-off in immigration policy? What the data say. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 11(2): 281-303.
Hess, S. & Kasparek, B. (2019). The Post-2015 European Border Regime. New Approaches in a Shifting Field. Archivio antropologico mediterraneo, XXII, n. 21(2).
Milkman, R. (2011). Immigrant workers, precarious work, and the US Labor movement. Globalizations, 8(3): 361-372.
Palier, B. (2019). Work, social protection and the middle classes: What future in the digital age? International Security Review, 72: 113-133.
Pogge, T. (2005). Real world justice. The Journal of Ethics, 9(1-2): 29-53.
Ponte, S. (2019). Business power & sustainability in a world of global value chains. London: zed books.
Pries, L. (2019). “We will manage it”. Did chancellor Merkel’s dictum increase or even cause the refugee movement in 2015? International Migration, doi: 10.1111/imig.12684.
Ruhs, M. (2012). The human rights of migrant workers: Why do so few countries care? American Behavioral Scientist, 56(9): 1277-1293.
Sassen, S. (2014). Expulsions. Brutality and complexity in the global economy. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press.
Scherrer, C. (2018). Labour surplus is here to stay: why ‘decent work for all’ will remain elusive. Journal Social and Economic Development, 20: 293-307.
Thompson, P., Newsome, K., & Commander, J. (2013). ‘Good when they want to be’: migrant workers in the supermarket supply chain. Human Resources Management Journal, 23(2): 129-143.
Young, I.M. (2004). Responsibility and global labor justice. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 12(4): 365-388.

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