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Getting Paid for Working, not Paying to Work – The UN Looks at Migration, “A Decent Work Issue”

7 Oct

“Speaking on behalf of the people – minus the people,” said Wellington Chibebe, Deputy of the International Trade Union Confederation, referring to  the fact that the only civil society contribution to the recent High Level Meeting on Migration and Development in the UN General Assembly was cancelled without further explanation. The group of those unaware of the cancellation apparently included participating governments and their diplomatic missions.

However, there were spaces for civil society to contribute to discussions on a theme of great imporance to their constituents. The Permanent Mission of the Philippines to the United Nations, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) and the Global Council of Unions hosted an interactive side event to the HLM “Migration and development: A decent work issue.” The list of speakers included Hans Leo Cacdac from the Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) in the Philippines; Michelle Leighton, Branch Chief of the International Labour Office (ILO MIGRANT); Annie Geron, Vice President of Public Services International (PSI); Samidha Garg, International Relations Officer of the UK National Union of Teachers; and Francesca Pizzutelli, Researcher and Advisor at Amnesty International.

Migration has developed into a top priority for global unions, particularly affecting the construction industry worldwide during and after the global economic crisis. An article published in 2009 by the International Labor Organization (ILO) describes the dilemma quite precisely.

“The construction industry makes use of low-paid and less-skilled workers, and as such is a major employer worldwide of migrant labor.” The article explains how migrant workers have been particularly affected by the downturn in construction due to the global financial crisis, in some cases losing not only their livelihood but also their residence rights in the country where they have been working. “Estimates suggest that in the Gulf States, where migrant labor has been very largely supporting the recent boom in construction, 150,000 foreign workers were released during 2008.” The ILO also highlights an example from the Russian Federation, where more than 20,000 Turkish workers have recently been sent home.

Michelle Leighton, ILO representative, identified an important issue during her panel presentation: “Labor migration policies are often undertaken and developed by foreign ministries.” She pointed out the “benefits” of harmonizing policies to create binding global standards that focus attention on labor, not on politics. “Labor markets need to identify worker’s skill levels, as many of them work in under-qualified jobs.” By working at such jobs , migrant workers do not further develop skills acquired back home, and later return to their native countries working below the position they had started out with. “The race to the bottom is often an inevitable result,” Leighton pointed out.

How much of a pragmatic issue migration can become, at least for segments of the American political landscape , according to Leighton, is evidenced by the immigration bill the US Senate passed in June. The bill was picked up by House Democrats last week and now represents a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants now living in the U.S. illegally. At the same time, border security is mandated to be tightened. Transverse to these ideas are members of the Republican Party, who reject a comprehensive approach. Despite this resistance, as Leighton points out, “We are now working on regional mobility schemes in South Africa,” which might very well be applied globally in the future.

Francesca Pizzutelli, representing Amnesty International, raised the humanitarian component of global migration and the human rights violations that migrant workers often face within their destination countries. “Member states have to be serious about the issue. So far I have only heard lip service.” She referred specifically to her home country Italy. “My government claims that Italy respects the human rights of migrants, but it has been proven that it really doesn’t.” On behalf of Amnesty International she identified four pledges for the improvement of migrant workers circumstances:

  • Ensuring that border controls respect human rights

  • Finding alternatives to the detention of migrant workers

  • Providing easier access to justice for migrant workers

  • Implementing concrete measures against hate speech and discrimination by individual member states

Citing an Amnesty report from December 2012, Pizzutelli explained, “In the past decade the Italian authorities have been whipping up public anxiety alleging that the country’s security is threatened by an uncontrollable ‘clandestine’ migration thus justifying strict migration measures. These measures put migrant workers in a precarious legal situation making them easy prey for exploitation.”

With global migration advancing as one of the Secretary General´s top priorities, who views it as a multi-facetted reality in need of regulation, rather than a phenomenon that can be stopped, the panel delivered valid insights. With an increase in global migration due to climate change, social and economic hardship or warfare, international legislation is in need for alignment and becomes not only a decent, but urgent work issue to address in the near future.

Lia Petridis Maiello, GAPW