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New hope for the world's 86 million migrant workers

The ILO's 92nd International Labour Conference has adopted a new plan aimed at providing a fair deal for the world's 86 million migrant workers. The plan includes a host of measures for managing migration, protecting their rights and preventing trafficking. This news feature tells the story.

Article | 23 June 2004

GENEVA - Across the world, millions of people are on the move - doing jobs ranging from menial labour such as picking fruit to computer programming.

Combined, their numbers would equal the fifth most populous country on the planet. Still, you won't find this phantom nation represented here - they were moving within countries, across borders and between continents to seek their own road out of poverty.

An estimated 86 million migrants are in work. And their numbers are likely to increase, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). What's more, almost half the world's migrants are women. Often vulnerable and travelling alone, like Milly, they may cross borders illegally.

"I move around with a temporary permit, because going illegally is dangerous. They will take your belongings. If you are carrying money, you will have to give it to them so they let you go across. But if you don't have money they will bring you back to the border."

The risks faced by Milly do not stop at the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Once in the receiving country, undocumented migrants work and live on the margins. Abuse and exploitation by employers, corrupt bureaucrats and criminal gangs routinely go unpunished.

The challenge, according to ILO expert Manolo Abella, is to avoid marginalization. Says Mr. Abella: "Countries that have policies that allow for better social integration are much more successful in gaining full and productive participation in the labour market."

Many others, like Milly, manage to evade border controls and find jobs. To protect migrants' rights and maximize the positive effects of migration, the answer is not stricter policing but better policies.

What is the ILO doing to provide a fair deal for migrants?

ILO delegates have adopted a new plan that will include a non-binding, multilateral framework aimed at managing migration, and preventing irregular migration and exploitation of migrant workers. The plan is designed to ensure that migrant workers are covered by the provisions of international labour standards, while benefiting from applicable national labour and social laws.

"Migration is one of the most contentious issues facing the world today," ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said. "This plan of action protects the rights of one of the most vulnerable sectors… it's a major achievement that serves as a milestone for the future."

Delegates have asked the ILO to present the framework for managing migration to the Organization's Governing Body in its November 2005 session. The ILO will convene expert meetings and ask member States to contribute best practices for inclusion in the guidelines which will be disseminated through ILO technical cooperation activities, especially those aimed at enhancing capacities of newly emerging migration countries.

Says the ILO's Mr. Abella: "This represents a historic consensus among our tripartite partners the world over. Never before have so many countries come together to agree on how to address these issues. Why is this important? Because not only are there more migrant workers today than ever before, but they also annually send a huge amount of remittances - estimated at US$80 billion - back to their home countries. The money is used to improve living standards, fight poverty, feed families, and provide education and schooling. That's why we need to be there to help make sure that these migrants get a fair deal."