Opening Address to IOM International Symposium on Migration: Towards Regional Cooperation on Irregular/Undocumented Migration

by Ms Mitsuko Horiuchi, Regional Director, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Statement | Bangkok | 22 April 1999

It is a great pleasure to speak to you today on behalf of the International Labour Organization.

Our Organization, as many of you know, is the only one in the United Nations family with a constitutional mandate to address migrant-worker issues. It has accordingly devised a set of international labour standards and promotes and supervises their application. It also offers member States technical cooperation to help them meet their obligations under international law.

The International Labour Conference, the ILO's decision-making body, took up the subject of irregular migration in the 1970s. The result was a "Convention concerning Migrations in Abusive Conditions and the Promotion of Equality of Opportunity and Treatment of Migrant Workers", also known as Convention 143.

Today, the task facing countries in our region is to develop policies and administrative procedures in line with the letter and spirit of that Convention.

I would like to call your attention to six cardinal features of the ILO's approach to abusive migration as embodied in that Convention.

The first will be familiar to all defenders of human and labour rights: migrant-worker protection. The one foolproof way to curtail clandestine migration and exploitation of migrants by traffickers, intermediaries and unscrupulous employers is simply to respect the rights of migrant workers.

Under Convention 143 these include equal treatment of migrants and nationals with respect to security of employment, retraining, social security, rights accrued through past employment and other benefits. Article 8 expressly states that a migrant worker lawfully residing in a territory for purposes of employment may not lose the right to go on living or working there merely through loss of employment.

These rights build on basic entitlements set out 50 years ago in another ILO Convention on migration for employment, No. 97, which obliges States to ensure that migrant workers have the benefit of accurate information, suitable conditions of entry and departure, salary, health and other benefits.

Unless the Governments of migrant-receiving countries ensure that migrants get fair wages and benefits, for example, it is plain that the terms and conditions of employment of their own nationals will suffer, as foreign workers take their places in certain sectors of the labour market.

A second feature of the ILO's approach is the detection of irregularities. The Convention lays a duty on the countries migrants come from, the countries they pass through and receiving- countries alike to determine "systematically" whether any relevant breaches of national or international law have taken place.

Thirdly, Convention 143 requires States to take all "necessary and appropriate" steps to combat clandestine migration for purposes of employment.

Fourthly, it recognizes that it is frequently not enough for only one country - be it the sending, transit or receiving country - to take action. For an effective end to abusive practices all three have to work together.

Not only must they collaborate to "suppress clandestine movements of migrants for employment" they have to pool their energies to target the organizers of such movements and the employers of illegal migrants. The Convention also calls for regular contacts and exchanges of information to make sure that traffickers in manpower can be prosecuted no matter what country they operate in. Collaboration on these matters usually follows from bilateral or multilateral agreements.

Fifthly, the Convention requires States to devise and apply a range of administrative, civil and penal sanctions to those who knowingly assist or organize unlawful movements of migrant workers or who employ them under abusive conditions. While the particular nature of those sanctions is at the discretion of each country, imprisonment must be one of them.

The last and certainly not least significant aspect of the ILO's approach which I shall mention is the role of employers' and workers' organizations. Convention 143 requires States to consult representative employers' and workers' organizations before enacting laws or taking other measures to give it effect. But it also invites them to take "initiatives" to prevent and eliminate abusive practices, promote exchanges of information, detect irregularities and so on.

Formal provision for tripartite consultation on these issues is rare. By opening doors to the productive forces of civil society the Convention offers Governments an effective way to tackle the problems we all deplore.

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How effective has this approach actually been?

There is evidence that many States have made commendable efforts to combat clandestine migration and unlawful employment.

But we can also see that current trends in favour of repressive laws and practices have failed to turn the tide.

To ensure respect of the fundamental rights of those migrant workers who are most exposed to improper treatment - those in irregular situations - we must safeguard the human rights of all migrant workers.

Convention 143 has charted a comprehensive approach to the problems of abusive migration. But, the as-yet limited number of ratifications of that Convention together with the spiralling numbers of irregular migrants - especially in Asia - shows that there is still much to be done.

There is no easy way to overcome the emigration pressure exerted by poverty and fuelled by the commercialization of migration processes, notably in Asia and the Pacific. Nor will higher levels of development and employment alone stem international flows of labour.

To the contrary, growth opens up gaps at the bottom of the labour market which there are always enough poor, or nearly poor people to fill.

But does this mean that irregular migration, particularly to bottom-rung jobs, is something we have to live with?

Definitely not.

Abusive labour migration is morally unacceptable. As the Asian financial crisis has shown, migrant workers are among the most vulnerable groups in the population when economies fail.

Such migration is also economically untenable. For one thing, it can be a vector of social unrest. And again, in times of economic downturn, it can drain scarce resources.

International labour standards like those in the Migrant Workers Convention hold vast, untapped potential for improving migration policy.

But the work of the ILO does not stop there. In Asia and the Pacific, as in other regions, our experts on the broad issues of migration are doing the following:

helping lawmakers draft relevant legislation;

helping Governments set up effective administrative structures;

contributing to the design of training policies for migrants;

fostering closer contacts between States to curb illegal recruitment and trafficking of migrants;

working to expand social protection schemes for migrant workers and their families;

and launching projects to permit returning workers to upgrade their skills for new jobs back home.

It is my hope that one of the achievements of this Conference will be the birth of further cooperation between us and the strengthening of our ability to improve the position of migrant workers in Asia and the Pacific, and beyond.