15. Labour Migration

Sustainable Development

Decent work

Economy Social Environment Employment Protection Rights Dialogue
Relevant SDG Targets
8.8, 10.7
Relevant Policy Outcomes
9 1, 2, 7, 8, 10

On this page: DWA-SDG Relationship | Cross-cutting policy drivers | Partnerships | ILO Capacity | Resources

International migration today is a global phenomenon of growing volume and complexity. Many countries are now origin, transit and destination countries for migrant workers. Labour migration movements have the potential to greatly impact the social and economic well-being of their countries of origin, transit and destination. In destination countries, labour migration can rejuvenate the workforce, allow labour-intensive sectors such as agriculture, construction and personal services to function, promote entrepreneurship, support social protection schemes, and help meet the demand for skills. Countries of origin benefit from remittance flows, and transfer of investments, technology and critical skills through returning migrants and transnational communities (diaspora) (51).

The ILO global estimates on migrant workers show that in 2013, migrant workers accounted for 150 million of the world’s approximately 232 million international migrants. Migrant workers represent 4.4 per cent of the global labour force, higher than the proportion of international migrants in the global population (3.3 per cent). More migrant women than non-migrant women participate in the labour force (67 per cent as compared to 50.8 per cent), whereas participation rates of migrant and non-migrant men are essentially the same (78 per cent as compared to 77.2 per cent). While migrant workers contribute to growth and development in their countries of destination and origin, the migration process implies complex challenges in terms of governance, migrant workers' protection, migration and development linkages, as well as international cooperation. The ILO works to forge policies to maximize the benefits of labour migration for all those involved.

One of the ILO’s predominant concerns since its inception has been the protection of migrant workers. ILO’s Constitution of 1919 calls for the “protection of the interests of workers when employed in countries other than their own”. Labour migration has received renewed impetus through the Declaration of the UN General Assembly High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development (HLD) in October 2013, which acknowledged the important contribution of migration in realizing the Millennium Development Goals, and recognized that human mobility is a key factor for sustainable development. In his report to the HLD, the UN Secretary General’s eight-point agenda for action on making migration work for development called for reducing the costs of labour migration, such as remittance transfer costs and recruitment fees. Moreover, the benefits of labour migration could be strengthened by enhancing the portability of social security and by promoting the mutual recognition of diplomas, qualifications and skills. Labour migration is also referenced in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted by the General Assembly in September 2016, and is expected to feature strongly in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which UN member States committed to adopt in 2018.

Working on labour migration issues fits squarely within ILO’s mandate for social justice. The ILO promotes the rights of migrant workers and the fair governance of labour migration through its body of standards, including the eight ILO fundamental rights Conventions; the ILO Migration for Employment Convention (Revised), 1949 (No. 97), the Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 (No. 143), the accompanying Migration for Employment Recommendation (Revised), 1949, (No. 86), the Migrant Workers Recommendation, 1975 (No. 151), and the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189). Other relevant instruments include the Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration (2006) and the General Principles and Operational Guidelines for Fair Recruitment (2016). The ILO brings together the actors of the world of work, including Ministries of Labour, workers’ and employers' organizations, and civil society to build consensus on a fair migration agenda that takes into account labour market needs at all skill levels, while protecting the interests and rights of all workers.

At the 2014 International Labour Conference, the ILO Director-General chose the subject of migration, “a key feature of today’s world of work and one which raises complex policy challenges”. The report 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 the need to build migration regimes which respond equitably to the interests of countries of origin and destination, migrant workers, employers and nationals.

ILO’s Fair Migration Agenda consists of the following elements:
  • making migration a choice and not a necessity, by creating decent work opportunities in countries of origin;
  • respecting the human rights, including labour rights, of all migrants;
  • ensuring fair recruitment and equal treatment of migrant workers to prevent exploitation and level the playing field vis à vis nationals;
  • formulating fair migration schemes in regional integration processes;
  • promoting bilateral agreements for well-regulated and fair migration between member States;
  • countering unacceptable situations through the promotion of the universal exercise of fundamental principles and rights at work;
  • promoting social dialogue by involving Ministries of Labour, trade unions and employers’ organisations in policy making on migration; and
  • contributing to a strengthened multilateral rights-based agenda on migration (44). 
The complexity of labour migration and mobility, including refugee flows, is growing. Many countries are under-equipped to handle this situation, which, owing to poor labour market functioning and weak governance, results in irregular migration, underutilization of skills, job mismatches, discrimination, widening inequality and exploitation, including in recruitment. If not well governed, labour migration may exacerbate such decent work deficits for migrant workers and their families, and also result in long-term adverse socio-economic costs to countries of origin and destination. Whether labour migration will be of benefit or not depends very much on the policy framework of countries of origin and destination as well as on the bilateral, regional and multilateral cooperation among them. No country can effectively deal with labour migration in isolation.

DWA-SDG Relationship

The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda Declaration in its paragraph 29 states that: “We recognize the positive contribution of migrants for inclusive growth and sustainable development. We also recognize that international migration is a multi-dimensional reality of major relevance for the development of countries of origin, transit and destination, which requires coherent and comprehensive responses. We will cooperate internationally to ensure safe, orderly and regular migration involving full respect for human rights and the humane treatment of migrants regardless of migration status, of refugees and of displaced persons.” This objective is further concretized in SDG target 8.8: “Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment” and in SDG target 10.7: “Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies”, which both clearly relate to ILO’s mandate as articulated most recently in the fair migration agenda. The ILO is the custodian agency for further developing the methodology for two of the SDG target 8.8 indicators concerning occupational safety and health and freedom of association and collective bargaining, both to be disaggregated by sex and migrant status. Together with the World Bank, the ILO is also collecting data and developing a methodology to measure the cost of recruitment, which is one of the indicators under SDG target 10.7.

As from the biennium 2016–17, labour migration is covered by a specific policy outcome, namely Outcome 9 titled “Fair and effective international labour migration and mobility”. Many other policy outcomes contribute to making migration processes fairer; in fact, labour migration is closely linked to all four pillars of the Decent Work Agenda. Labour migration is motivated by the search for jobs, but migrant workers are often excluded from protection, rights and social dialogue in the country of destination. The Office and ILO member states must apply a comprehensive Decent Work approach to improve the lives of migrant workers.

Cross-cutting policy drivers

As pointed out above, labour migration is the subject of several ILO instruments whose application was reviewed in 2016 through the General Survey concerning the migrant workers instruments. The Office’s future work on labour migration will be guided by the conclusions of a general discussion on the topic at the 2017 International Labour Conference. The general discussion focused on the governance of labour migration at the national, bilateral and regional levels, as well as fair recruitment.

About half of the 150 million migrant workers are women, and many of them are particularly exposed to exploitation, harassment and violence. ILO’s work on gender equality and non-discrimination will address issues such as global care chains, violence against women migrants, negative health outcomes and exploitation, as well as discrimination in hiring and in the workplace on grounds of ethnicity, nationality, gender, disability and HIV status.

As labour migration is a cross-border phenomenon, the strengthening of national, sub-regional and regional social dialogue mechanisms, processes and institutions on labour migration must be a key feature of ILO’s work, and requires close cooperation with UN Regional Economic Commissions and regional economic communities (RECs).

Finally, climate change and environmental degradation may cause climate-induced labour migration, since farming or fishing practices are becoming unsustainable, or because rising sea levels may force entire population groups to flee their country.


The ILO collaborates with regional and sub-regional institutions, and, as a member agency of the Global Migration Group (GMG), has contributed to the design of the UN Development Assistance Framework guidance on migration and displacement which is currently being finalized. The ILO also co-chairs with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) the GMG Task Force on Migration and Decent Work. The ILO partners with the OHCHR in order to promote rights-based migration governance, and has entered into a partnership with the UNHCR to implement a plan of action under the 2016 ILO-UNHCR Memorandum of Understanding.

The ILO’s cooperation with the World Bank focuses on research and surveys measuring labour migration costs, which includes developing a methodology for the SDG indicator on the cost of recruitment (SDG indicator 10.7.1; see above). The ILO will also strengthen its partnerships with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academia, the media, and local authorities around the issue of labour migration.

The European Commission is one of the principal development partners financing ILO’s labour migration programmes; the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) also supports a number of ILO labour migration projects.

ILO Capacity

The ILO’s work on labour migration is led by the MIGRANT Branch under the Conditions of Work and Equality Department. The Branch is represented through regional focal points in all geographic regions and in many field offices. An up-to-date list of staff working on migration issues can be found here. It includes the national and international experts working on labour migration projects. In addition to the MIGRANT staff, many other ILO colleagues, working in areas such as labour standards, labour inspection, working conditions, enterprise and cooperative development, gender equality and non-discrimination, social protection, and social dialogue, can be mobilized to provide technical support in specific aspects of labour migration.

The ILO’s flagship training event on labour migration, the Labour Migration Academy (LMA), took place in December 2016 in Johannesburg. This was the fifth edition of the LMA.


The ILO topic page on labour migration includes links to numerous related tools and statistics, including the most recent (2015) and a good practices database organized by region, theme and sector. Additional material can be accessed through the labour migration page of the ILO Library, and via the labour migration page of the ITC Turin.

44. ILO. Decent work in global supply chains - Report IV to the 105th ILC. Geneva : ILO, 2016.

51. —. Integrating Labour Migration into the 2013 UN High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development, and the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda / ILO position paper. Geneva : ILO, 2013.