Special lecture on Protection of Migrant Workers in Asia Pacific at the International Seminar on International Migrants' Day Trans-Nationalism, Displacement and Risk: Toward a Better Human Security of Migrants in GSM/SEA

by Mr Manolo Abella, Chief Technical Adviser, Asian Programme on the Governance of Labour Migration, ILO Office for Asia and the Pacific

Statement | Bangkok | 18 December 2006

Today is international migrants’ day so let us pause for a minute and let us reflect on what it is like to be a migrant worker.

Imagine for a moment that you are a migrant, say a Thai contracted to work in a factory in Kaoshung. Imagine the risk you took to quit your job, your old employer and friends at the shop, and paid a hundred thousand baht to a recruiter to get that job and reach Taiwan . You and your wife borrowed that money from a money lender and have to pay it back as soon as possible because the interest is piling up. Your body aches all over from working overtime, and your mind can’t free itself from worries about the children and the wife you have left behind, about your father who is in and out of the hospital. The morning is coming and you have to be in that factory again, another day being shouted at by the supervisor whose language you do not understand.

Imagine for a moment that you are a young woman from a village in Surabaya in Indonesia , and is now in Saudi Arabia . Imagine how much determination it took to pull yourself away from your family and friends in the village you grew up in, from your father who was always around to protect you, from the young man whom you love and hope to marry some day. You are now in a distant and unknown land many thousands of miles away, completely in the hands of strange men more powerful than you. Imagine your fear because of stories you have heard about employers who have sexually harassed their foreign domestic helpers. Imagine your loneliness. For a year or more you can’t expect to see, or even hear the voices of your family members, relatives and friends. Imagine that you’ll work for nothing for the next 4 to 6 months because your wages will be deducted to pay for your airfare and recruitment fees. Imagine what determination it takes to stick it out and eventually earn some money to send back to your parents. Imagine what it feels to be virtually imprisoned in your employer’s house, to be prevented from seeing the world outside for weeks or months on end. Imagine the courage to cope with the risks, the fortitude to bear the loneliness, the generosity to devote all the fruits of your sacrifices for your family.

And imagine what it feels like to be an undocumented, some say illegal, migrant worker. You may have thought you got a valid visa but it turned out to be a fake. You’ll need to keep away from the police and the authorities. You can’t hope to get a kind employer – the good ones only hire workers with work permits. You are probably working in some basement or hidden shop, not supposed to be seen by anyone. You are probably locked up inside the factory building since the employer is afraid of being caught and fined. You have to work long hours, even for scrap, to keep your body and soul together. You dream that someday you’ll be free and earn enough to send home money to your family. You spend sleepless nights figuring out how to get out of your rot. You might be threatened with being sent to jail if you complain. If you are a woman, you might not call for help even when you are harassed or abused.

Let us pause and pay tribute to their courage and determination, generosity and devotion to their families, their self-sacrifice. At the same time let us also pay tribute to their accomplishments – their skills and creativity, their ability to adjust to new environments, communicate in another language, and learn to cope with what is different and foreign. Let us today celebrate their achievements and triumphs. Their work is evident everywhere. No need to mention that Einstein was a migrant, and so is Nicole Kidman. If you look around, in Bangkok , Dubai , Singapore , or KL, you see all the monuments to their hard labour in the shape of paved roads and tall skyscrapers, airports and underground trains, crowded hotels and restaurants, clean houses and manicured lawns.

Now let us ask ourselves – what have we done to protect their right to decent work? To a safe environment? To humane and just treatment?

We are not unfamiliar with their problems. We encounter them in our daily lives, we write and hear about them in numerous conferences, we read about them in our newspapers and news magazines. How much of this knowledge has inspired the way we treat migrant workers in our societies? How much of this knowledge have we used to influence the way our laws and policies are formulated, and the way these laws and regulations are put into practice?

Let me speak first about efforts at the multilateral and international levels. As many of you are aware, the issue of migration has virtually exploded on the global stage. Of particular significance are a few multilateral initiatives to reach agreement among states on the principles that should guide their policies on the management of migration, and the protection of asylum seekers, refugees, migrant workers, regardless of how they entered the country. The first that should be mentioned is the coming into force of the 1990 UN Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families which took over a decade to bring about. So far it has not been ratified by a single developed country that admits migrants. In Asia it has only been ratified by three countries.

There was the “The Hague Declaration” which came out of several meetings convened by the Dutch in that beautiful old city in Holland . There was the “Berne Initiative” which the Swiss Government initiated and which, with IOM’s help, obtained the consensus of many developed and developing countries. It too developed a set of guidelines on principles and policies for managing borders, treating migrants, and enhancing cooperation among states.

Then there is ILO’s Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration, a rights-based but non-binding framework for managing labour migration, that the ILO Governing Body adopted last March. It is a detailed set of policy guidelines based on international principles, notably ILO’s Conventions on Migrant Workers,C. 97 and 143, and also on best practices collected from all over. This Framework is asking states to open more regular avenues for migration, to give effect to the principle of equal treatment of migrants in employment and working conditions as well as in social security as enunciated in ILO Convention 97, that path- breaking international instrument on the subject adopted in 1949. It also asks member states to facilitate the social integration of immigrants and to make more use of social dialogue to ensure that sound and acceptable policies are adopted. My present pre-occupation is promote adoption of this Framework in Asia . I ask your help in getting it adopted in Thailand .

Then we had the Global Commission on International Migration whose long-awaited report highlighted temporary labour migration and what principles states ought to observe in treating those they admit for temporary work. As in all affairs of this kind the Commission’s report was inevitably bland as it had to balance the interests and concerns of all parties, of the North and the South. It thus failed to attract the attention it deserved from the world’s leaders.

And of course many of you remember last September’s happening at the UN General Assembly, the High-Level Dialogue on Migration and Development. Its main achievement is that it was held at all because of the resistance of some major receiving countries to bringing the issue of migration to the multilateral table. But many heads of states came to address that meeting, demonstrating again that many others viewed the solution to today’s dilemmas on migration lies not in unilateral action but in cooperation among states.

Do all these developments indicate an emerging acceptance by states of the need to be bound by universal rules in treating the migrants? I am an optimist and I say that they do. Sep 9/11 almost succeeded in stopping all progress. Fortunately, the world has recovered and everyone realized that it is in everyone’s self interest to continue the dialogue.

In order to make further progress we need to assess how far we can push for principles that everyone would accept. That means being creative, energetic, and having realistic goals. How do we convince authorities that to protect migrants is to protect your own nationals? How do we show that it is in a host country’s interest not to allow discrimination or segmentation of their labour markets – one part enjoying high wages and benefits, the other part left to exploitation and abuse?

Unfortunately, we have not succeeded in convincing states to do so. Why? I think because we have yet to come up with the right solution. Let us compare migration with trade. Unlike trade, the parties to migration negotiations have very asymmetric interests. More workers from the poor countries want to move to the richer lands than the number of workers in the richer countries wanting to move the poorer ones. If we are to advance in this field we need to come up with a convincing justification for liberalizing movements, one that everyone would consider valid and in their self interest. This happened in the case of trade where most today accept the validity of the principle of comparative advantage. You get richer by trading, specializing in producing goods where you have a comparative advantage. In migration we do not have such a widely accepted principle.

I think this is a challenge for economists and other social scientists to come up with the equivalent to the theory of comparative advantage. Economists are already pointing out that global welfare will rise faster by freeing the movements of labour than removing the barriers to trade. But it remains to be shown that it is in the narrow self interest of individual states to do so. Some have argued that globalization should mean liberalizing the movement of people across borders simply because capital and goods are fully mobile. That is an expression of hope, not an appeal to logic, and individual states have not bought the argument.

What about the work of protecting migrant workers at national levels?

How much do we know about the reality on the ground? Have we done enough to extend the protective cover of our national laws to include migrants? Have we translated into practice the principle of equal treatment enunciated in many national legislations? How are national policies getting implemented at the ground level? By the enforcers of the law who have so much temptation to misuse their powers? Have we mobilized society’s most effective institutions to bring about the necessary changes in law and practice?

This is the area in which all of us can make a difference, a large difference, in our own respective spheres of work. Most of you are already involved in this work so perhaps I need not say more.

But I have just come back from Malaysia where the Malaysian Trade Unions Congress has jointly organized with us a conference among trade unions from the countries of origin of migrant workers – Indonesia , Bangladesh , Nepal , India , the Philippines and Vietnam . And I have become greatly encouraged that bad situations can be changed. In that conference we heard examples of how MTUC is making progress in organizing migrant workers, in how working with NGOs they succeed in convincing the authorities to allow migrant workers to stay in order to file their claims, in how the unions are lobbying to get the employers to improve health and safety conditions in factories.

In Thailand you are more aware of these possibilities. The challenges are daunting.

We have just released today the results of an ABAC poll we commissioned jointly with UNIFEM to assess how the Thai public feels about the growing presence of foreign or migrant workers in their midst. Some 4148 people were interviewed all over the country. According to the poll, the majority of respondents were not aware of the policies regarding migrant workers in Thailand , except that they are required to register with the authorities. Most respondents stated that admitting foreign workers in Thailand will have a negative impact on Thai workers. The majority would like the Government to reduce the admission of more foreign workers.

These are in a way not surprising. You will run across such perceptions in most other countries. What however is troubling is the finding that roughly half of all respondents said migrant workers should not be provided with the same legal working conditions as Thais. Nearly 3 out every 5 said migrant workers should not be allowed freedom of expression. About 77 % felt that migrant workers should not have the right to form unions.

I should quickly add however that those who have been personally acquainted with migrant workers felt that migrants are hard working. However many expressed concerns that migrants are generally not honest and loyal.The poll also indicated that the media plays an important role in shaping public views and knowledge about migrant workers. Four out of five people (79.9%) remembered media reports about migrant workers who had committed serious crimes in Thailand . Only 41.4% recalled reports where migrants had been cheated or abused by employers.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Celebrations are meant to remind us of the significance of important events or matters to our lives. Of course, unlike the end of a world war or a major disaster, December 18 does not represent a momentous event in history that could by itself remind us of its significance. It is now up to all of us to ensure that it is more than just one of those innocuous dates that has no meaning to our lives. It should strengthen our resolve to make this a better world for the millions who still labour in the shadows of our societies, doing the work that we no longer wish to do, taking the risks that we no longer need to take.

Thank you.