Anniversary of the convention to protect migrant workers

By Martina Liebsch, head of policy and advocacy at Caritas Internationalis

Dirty, demanding and dangerous – these are the types of jobs that migrants often find themselves doing when they leave their homes. They are often considered unqualified and cheap labour and this makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation.

Migrants may find that they are under-paid for the work they do or not paid at all. Migrant workers are disproportionately represented in those sectors of the economy that are subject to sub-contracting, outsourcing and thus severe cost cutting measures. Third parties such as employment agencies or smugglers may also have a hand in exploiting them. Migrants may find themselves confined and without the freedom to move around or contact authorities regarding abuses. In some cases, their lives are threatened or those of their families if they threaten to expose abuse.

Choucha transit centre, Tunisia: Bangladeshi migrant workers wait to be transferred to Djerba airport where they will board flights that will take them home. Photo by International Organization for Migration

Choucha transit centre, Tunisia: Bangladeshi migrant workers wait to be transferred to Djerba airport where they will board flights that will take them home. Photo by International Organization for Migration

Migrant workers contribute to the societies where they come from and also to the societies where they work and live. They often pay a high price, with their health, their personal development and simply their well-being when they migrate. We need to support and encourage migrants to come forth and claim their rights, as this will contribute to a more just society and will deter those who want to take advantage from the exploitation of migrants.

One such instrument aimed at protecting the rights of migrants and their families is the International Migrant Workers Convention. It aims to establish harmonised basic principles for the treatment of migrant workers and members of their families in the light of increased migration flows at State level.

First and foremost the convention, which was adopted in 1990, protects migrants before departure and during their period of stay and work in their destination country as well as after their return. It applies to all migrant workers without distinction and it includes their families.

Secondly, and importantly, the convention considers migrants independently of their legal status, documented and not documented. Migrants have the right to migrate from their state of origin and they have the right to return at any time. Their right to life should be protected by law and they should not be subject to torture or any degrading treatment. Migrants should not be held in slavery or servitude, nor be made to engage in forced labour. They should be allowed to practice their religion, there should not be interference with their privacy and they should not be deprived of their property, moreover they should have the right to freedom and security and should not be put in arbitrary detention.

In spite of this instrument existing, only 48 countries have ratified the convention – and not those who are major migrant receiving countries, apart from Argentina. The rationale behind the convention was, that if migrant workers’ rights are protected independently of their legal status, exploitation could be avoided.

The main obstacle has been that the convention – rightly so – is applicable both for migrants in a regular and in an irregular situation. State Parties were afraid that by protecting their rights regardless of status, they would encourage migrants to come through irregular paths. The fathers and mothers of the convention – including the Catholic Church – thought however that the rights of migrants should be protected, in spite of them having entered a given country in an irregular manner.

Returning migrants fill up the necessary forms upon their arrival home. IOM repatriated Filipinos stranded in Lebanon , many of whom are migrant workers. Photo by International Organization for Migration

Returning migrants fill up the necessary forms upon their arrival home. IOM repatriated Filipinos stranded in Lebanon , many of whom are migrant workers. Photo by International Organization for Migration

In many countries if you are irregular you are subject to detention and deportation. Many migrant workers, because of their irregular migration status, are afraid of detention and deportation, and thus do not denounce abuse and exploitation to the authorities. Others have had bad experiences at home with the authorities and thus do not want to denounce abuse, because of the fear that they would not be heard or their case not solved. Others, due to the lack of perspectives, prefer to have some money, even if earned under exploitative conditions, for their living and for their families.

Article 21 of the Convention says that it is unlawful for anyone to confiscate, destroy or attempt to destroy identity documents. Unfortunately, this is what often happens. Documents of migrant workers are confiscated by recruiters and employers, so that they cannot go anywhere to prove their identity and seek for help.

Caritas advocates for legal channels for labour migration, convinced that the opportunity to travel regularly, safely to take up employment in another country will make them less vulnerable to abuses.

Caritas emphasises the rights of migrant workers and their families in its advocacy work and denounces their abuses. In the case of migrant domestic workers, – heavily abused and exploited in many parts of the world – Caritas contributed to and promotes the ILO Convention nr. 189 (Decent Work for Domestic Workers).

Caritas and other organisations ask for a “firewall” for migrants:  When migrants report abuses and violation of their rights, the authorities should not be obliged to report to the border police about their migratory status. More labour inspections are needed to detect labour exploitation. Migrants should receive compensation for the abuses they had to suffer and also for wages which were not paid.

In many societies our consumerism makes us complicit in fostering slavery. The ongoing call for economic growth and economic benefits are often achieved thanks to cheap labour and exploitation.  The Convention continues to be needed and enforced to help migrant workers and their families to have sufficient protection.

Decent Work is on the Sustainable Development Agenda. The achievement of decent work will depend on us, citizens and consumers, not to accept products which have been produced under exploitative conditions.  It needs a lot more awareness raising, information, change of mentality and also political will to implement it. However, as the goal is combined with economic growth – which cannot and will not be open ended it might be difficult to achieve this change of mentality.

Pope Francis puts out a strong call in his Encyclical Letter “Laudato Si : “The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts.  The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests.  It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage.  In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organised crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species?” (LS 123)

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