Key Note Address at the Panel Discussion on Regional Cooperation on Employment and Labour Issues in South Asia

By Mr Yoshiteru Uramoto, ILO Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific at the Panel Discussion on Regional Cooperation on Employment and Labour Issues in South Asia, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, 20 September 2014

Statement | New Delhi, India | 20 September 2014
Prof. Praveen Jha, Prof. Deepak Mishra, ladies and gentlemen, friends,

South Asian countries must work together to protect migrant workers’ rights

Labour migration in Asia is increasing and getting more complex. More and more countries are involved in sending and receiving migrant workers. Thirty percent of the world’s migrants can now be found in Asia and Gulf Cooperation Council countries – that’s 71 million people, nearly equivalent to the population of Germany. India is in fact the largest remittance receiving country in the world, amounting to USD 71 billion, equal to 4 % of GDP. In Nepal it constitutes 25% of GDP. India hosts 6 million migrants while Pakistan, 3 million;

The largest flows from South Asia are to the Gulf Cooperation Council member states, who currently rely on foreign labour to fill almost 90% of private sector jobs, often in construction or domestic work. In total there are now around 25 million migrant workers in the GCC and other Middle Eastern countries, most of them from South and Southeast Asia. Every year more than two million workers go to the GCC from South Asia, and these numbers are likely to keep on rising, because of massive infrastructure projects such as those associated with the Qatar World Cup 2022 and the UAE World Expo 2020. Demographic factors, labour shortages and the large wage differential may be the major factors for labour migration but Jobs filled by migrant workers are typically found in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, and domestic work. In general not so much skills are required. Hence most take up a relatively low paid jobs in receiving countries.

* Rana Plaza: The developed countries import labor-intensive goods, which causes an increase in employment of unskilled workers in the less developed countries, decreasing the outflow of migrant workers. The export of capital-intensive goods from rich countries to poor countries also equalizes income and employment conditions, thus also slowing migration.

Temporary labour migration is often touted as a triple-win situation; a win for destination countries who can support a level of economic activity (low and high skilled) that would be impossible without foreign labour, a win for countries of origin because it lowers unemployment while bringing in remittances and skills learned abroad, and a win for the migrants who can earn higher incomes and escape poverty.

However, this triple-win often does not deliver benefits equally to all three parties, and it is the migrants who are being short-changed. There is an urgent need to create a fairer migration system.

In the past 20 years in Asia and the Middle East there have been increasing attempts to regulate the complex flows of migrant workers, primarily through national legislation and systems. There are also a number of bilateral and international agreements. These are largely limited to memorandums of understanding. It is generally acknowledged that the governments involved have not yet developed a system that ensures that all sides benefit equitably from migration – countries of origin and destination, employers, migrant workers and the local workforce.

In Asia and the Middle East the admission and employment systems generally offer relatively liberal entry procedures, restricted rights and limited duration of contracts and visas. This model, while showing relative openness in admission to migrant workers, has been increasingly criticized for inflicting poor living and working conditions on many migrants.

Private recruitment and employment agencies play a key role placing migrant workers in Asia and the Middle East and only a small minority of migrants find jobs through government to government arrangements. However the privatized recruitment sector is riddled with irregular practices that create excessive costs for migrants, and national regulations have so far failed to tackle these issues. This means that intermediaries, recruiters in countries of origin and kafeels or sponsors in destination countries, take an unfairly large share of the migrant worker’s earnings.

Under the Kafala or sponsorship system in the Middle East, the employer assumes full economic and legal responsibility for the employee and thereby exercises considerable power over the worker. Even in those Middle Eastern countries where it is illegal for employers to withhold a worker’s passport or visa, this is a common practice. The system also limits the ability of migrant workers to change jobs, and this restricts labour market flexibility and the efficient application of skills in the destination countries. Renegotiating the control that employers and kafeels exercise over migrants will bring benefits for the workers, employers and the economy as a whole.

Domestic work, mainly involving women, is perhaps the area with the highest incidence of labour abuses in the Middle East. In many countries domestic work is not yet covered by national labour laws, although it is encouraging that some governments have announced plans to improve the protection of domestic workers by formalizing their labour contracts. Construction is another sector dominated by migrant workers, and one where occupational safety and health is a serious concern.

Although demand for workers in both these sectors is expected to increase, real wages for these and other low skilled workers, have stagnated or even declined. One reason is that when there is a large gap between wage rates in the country of origin and destination, it is seen as acceptable for the migrants to be offered wages and conditions lower than those generally prevailing in the destination country. Giving migrant workers wage protection and fair remuneration is therefore critical.

Ladies and gentlemen, in neighboring South East Asia, the adoption of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2007 was a milestone, even though more still needs to be done on implementation. ASEAN has also created a stake-holders’ forum, that the ILO supports, to discuss the implementation of the Declaration and share good practices. This forum includes trade unions, employers’ organizations and NGOs.

There is no doubt that the SAARC countries share many of the same challenges and opportunities, as the ASEAN, related to the recruitment and employment of their out-bound migrant workers. These include reducing recruitment costs and promoting fair recruitment practices; promoting wage protection and fair remuneration; ensuring migrant workers enjoy international and national occupational safety and health standards; and helping migrant workers who are caught up in conflicts or emergencies to return and reintegrate into their communities.

SAARC could play a key role in dealing with these and other key issues, helping to develop a common position, sharing expertise and information, and providing mutual assistance. Decisive action will ensure that millions of migrant workers, and their families and societies, get the fair deal they deserve. Initial steps by SAARC can include: 
  • constituting a high-level committee on labour migration 
  • developing a SAARC Declaration on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers 
  • developing an action-plan to implement the Declaration 
  • mobilising technical and financial resources to implement the plan
  • establishing a multi-stakeholder forum to share good practices and provide feed-back on implementation of the Declaration.
The action-plan may include sharing of expertise/experience and policy coordination in the areas of: regulation of recruitment; decent employment and working conditions including a reference wage; regional model competency standards (skills); and capacity building and statistics.

SAARC as a regional institution, and with the leadership of India and other countries, like the ASEAN, is best placed to realize policy coordination among its members in order to improve the employment and working standards of its migrant workers.

Labour migration, which enables millions of workers to find jobs, and results in crores of Rupees in remittances, clearly has a livelihoods and poverty alleviation dimension at its core. In this sense it can be seen as a part of the SAARC Areas of Cooperation and SAARC Development Goals.

At the ILO International Labour Conference in June this year, in his second report as Director-General, Guy Ryder chose the subject of migration, “a key feature of today’s world of work and one which raises complex policy challenges.” The paper called for “constructing an agenda for fair migration which not only respects the fundamental rights of migrant workers but also offers them real opportunities for decent work….” This means a fair sharing of the prosperity they help to create, and to build migration regimes which respond equitably to the interests of countries of origin, destination, migrant workers, employers and nationals

The ILO with its decent work and social justice mandate, stands ready, with the UN community, to provide technical assistance to the SAARC countries in realizing a fair migration agenda.