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As Migrant Ranks Swell, Temporary Guest Workers Increasingly Replacing Immigrants Private Employment Agencies Send Millions Overseas to Work


Press release | 18 April 1997


GENEVA (ILO News) - As more and more immigrant countries opt for temporary versus permanent migration as a source of cheap, unskilled or semi­skilled labour, millions of the world's migrant workers - estimated at least 42 million - face a constant danger of exploitation, often sacrificing family and home life for low pay, poor working conditions, and inadequate job security, according to a new report by the International Labour Office (ILO).

"Though most of these workers cross borders in the hope of improving their lot, exploitation is a constant danger for migrants," said Roger Böhning, an ILO official and one of the report's authors: "Inequities are particularly likely to be present when non-nationals are admitted temporarily for the purpose of fixed-term employment."

In addition, as the power of private, fee-charging recruitment agencies grows rapidly, many migrant workers - especially those in unskilled or non-technical jobs - suffer a host of indignities including wholesale fraud, exorbitant fees, non-existent jobs, and often poor or even dangerous working conditions, the report, Protecting the most vulnerable of today's workers ( Endnote ), says.

Migrants are rarely if ever treated on a par with nationals, nor are they adequately covered by existing international labour standards forged by the ILO over the past 75 years.

The search for solutions to the problems of this inherently vulnerable and unprotected category of workers will be the subject of a tripartite meeting, to be held in the ILO in Geneva from 21 to 25 April, which will be attended by upwards of 60 representatives from 31 countries.

The ILO warns that the actual number of economically active people living outside their countries would certainly be much larger than the estimated 42 million if refugees and asylum-seekers (who must often support themselves) and illegal workers were included.

In addition to sub-standard working conditions, migrants may be put up in substandard housing at exorbitant rents, at the mercy of unscrupulous employers to whom they are tied for the duration of their admission. Migrants may also be obliged to contribute to social-security funds without ever receiving anything in return. The activities and rights of guest workers are as a rule, restricted, at least initially. In spite of low levels of social protection, seasonal workers are often left to their own devices once the work is finished and even prevented from moving to non-seasonal employment. Guest workers are often separated from their spouses and children and sometimes separated from the society at large in restricted housing areas.

The trend toward temporary employment prevails irrespective of geography or levels of economic development of receiving countries. For example, in Canada, a traditional immigration country, the number of temporary worker visas issued quadrupled during the last decade. The average annual inflow of temporary workers into Canada was two and a half times larger than the number of permanent immigrants, with 234,000 temporary workers compared to 114,000 immigrant workers.

In the United States, another large immigration country, the number of non-immigrant work visas grew by 4 per cent annually, from 340,000 in 1990 to 413,000 in 1995. If business workers providing temporary services for their country or company were included in the migration figures, the number of working, non-immigrant arrivals would have climbed from 3 million to 3.6 million.

Much the same pattern prevails in Australia, another traditional immigration country. France has about 100,000 permanent immigrants, of whom 80,000 are from outside the EU: temporary workers included about 11,000 seasonal workers from Morocco and Poland. Germany has about 150,000 seasonal workers and another 100,000 foreign guest and contract workers. A middle-income country such as Mexico admits each year more than 70,000 workers from Central America for seasonal work in agriculture.

Throughout the Pacific-rim, which is a relatively newer destination for migrants, there are hardly any permanent migration-for-work schemes.

In the early 1990s, Japan established an elaborate system of more temporary openings for highly qualified foreigners and persons of Japanese descent plus training-with-employment schemes for people from less developed countries in the region.

The numbers of migrant workers in the Republic of Korea, which developed similar training-with-employment schemes for the country's small to medium sized enterprise sector, nearly trebled in recent years, increasing from around 44,000 in 1992 to 136,000 in 1996.

The former socialist countries are also part of the trend. In the Czech Republic there were 14,500 foreign work-permit holders in mid-1992, nearly 32,900 in 1994 and 67,300 in 1996, in addition to 67,000 Slovaks in 1996. In the Russian Federation, which was previously isolated from international migration networks, the recent abolition of the State monopoly over placement will surely spur migration flows (although private-recruitment agencies have already placed hundreds of Russians abroad, many in well-paid employment).

Simultaneously, private, fee-charging recruitment agencies are rapidly coming to dominate the organization of temporary migration, with, for example, as much as 80 per cent of all movements of labour from Asian to Arab countries - one of the world's largest migrant flows - being handled by private agencies. In Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, private agencies dominate the organization of migration for employment abroad, "accounting for anywhere from 60 to 80 per cent of all migrant workers hired."

The report cites that private sector's undoubted efficiency and mobility in matching workers to jobs, but highlights a number of undesirable consequences, including fraud, exorbitant fees and unacceptable conditions of employment for migrant workers. The report cites the effect of private agencies as having been "especially hard on unskilled and non-technical workers."

Though statistics on fraud are rare, common recruitment malpractices in sending countries include:

  • soliciting applications and demanding fees for non-existent jobs;
  • withholding or giving false information on the nature of the jobs and terms of employment;
  • charging fees well above the maximum allowed by regulations or the actual cost of recruitment;
  • selecting applicants not on the basis of job qualifications, but on the amount of money they are willing to pay to get the job.

The goal of the experts meeting is to come out with guidelines on how Governments might improve protection of migrant workers in temporary employment and those recruited by private agents. The meeting is expected to enunciate the principles for treatment of temporary migrants who are inadequately covered by existing ILO Conventions.


Protecting the most vulnerable of today's workers - Tripartite Meeting of Experts on Future ILO Activities in the Field of Migration. International Labour Office, Geneva, 1997. ISBN 92-2-110465-6.