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The Empowerment of Migrant Workers in a Precarious Situation: An overview

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Transnational migrants in a precarious situation – including undocumented workers and temporary migrant workers – generally work in the lowest-paid jobs in the countries where they labor. Research has long documented that they are frequently subjected to exploitative conditions and rights violations both through the recruitment process and in their work. 

Through the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, States committed to “respond to the needs of migrants in situations of vulnerability”, address the challenges, and take action to “empower migrants to become full members of our societies” (para. 13). 

The vision adopted in the Global Compact is one in which migrants are not forced by desperation into migration but can do so based on genuine choice, whether it is to pursue education, reunite with family members, or work. It is one in which they can work in host countries in conditions that allow for decent work, where they are entitled to the same protections as workers who are nationals, and where their rights are respected in practice. It is also a vision in which migrants are actively encouraged to become full and engaged members of the societies in which they have worked.

The Global Compact adopted a range of concrete measures that must be implemented to move towards that vision. The need for action is more urgent than ever as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the precarious situation of migrants around the world and placed a premium on their empowerment as societies begin in stages to emerge and rebuild from the pandemic.

KNOMAD’s research project on The Empowerment of Migrant Workers in a Precarious Situation undertook a comparative analysis across five countries – Canada, Germany, Malaysia, Qatar, and South Africa -- to explore what accounts for the persistent practices that disempower migrants working for low pay. The five countries of focus were selected for comparison because they are located in five different geographic regions; are countries in which labor is performed by large numbers of migrant workers; and are countries to which migrant workers arrive through a mix of south-to-south and south-to-north migration flows. The rights-based framework relating to labor migration that is found in UN and ILO instruments provides the common point of reference that enables cross-regional comparison. 

The research reveals that, across very different countries, economies, legal systems and migration flows, strikingly common patterns of structural inequality, exploitative behaviour and weakness in institutional design accumulate to deny migrant workers’ secure protection of their labor rights and facilitate abuse and widespread rights violations. In mapping these patterns, the research also identifies common points for State intervention that would make a significant difference to empower migrant workers by addressing (i) precarity that arises from temporary or undocumented status; (ii) precarity in the labor market; and (iii) precarity that arises due to social isolation and lack of effective voice at work, in the community, and in political processes.

In particular, the research identifies six key steps that States can take towards advancing their commitment in the Global Compact to ensure that migrants’ rights are effectively protected:

  1. Facilitate the unionization of migrant workers in sectors known to be rife with exploitation. 
  2. Establish “firewalls” between public services and immigration enforcement mechanisms, in order to foster trust between host country authorities and migrant communities.
  3. Direct labor and health and safety inspection mechanisms to focus their work in sectors known to be rife with exploitation, and to do so regardless of the immigration status of the migrant workers.
  4. Facilitate regularization of status for undocumented workers, access to secure immigration status for all migrant workers, and facilitate processes for change of status for all migrant workers.
  5. Invest in integration policies at all levels to ensure that the relationship between migrants and their host society is the most harmonious and productive for all concerned.
  6. Facilitate legal cross-border mobility for most migrants, by offering multiple mobility options that will allow migrants at all levels of the economy to realize their ambitions and allow employers to find the workforce they need.

Stay tuned for my next blog post where I will discuss the role of labor inspectorates in empowering migrants, and specific recommendations States could pursue to strengthen their mandate and capacity.


Fay Faraday

Assistant Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Canada

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