Roles and Responsibilities of Trade Unions with Regards to Access and Portability of Social Protection Entitlements for Migrant Workers

July 2013-October 2013


Social security systems are invaluable mechanisms to provide income security, reduce poverty and inequality, and promote social inclusion and dignity. Ideally, a healthy social security system should boost productivity, employability, and support sustainable economic development. Overall, it should contribute to a fair globalization for all.

The increasingly dynamic nature of the global labour markets and the shift toward temporary modes of migration have required national social protection systems to take steps in ensuring that migrant workers are not stripped of their right to social protection. Comprehensive social protection, defined as the coverage by all branches of social security at least at a minimum level of benefits has not been a reality for the vast majority of migrant workers and their family members. Migration often exposes workers to many challenges including limited legal rights, various forms of discrimination, abuse, social exclusion and the lack of (access and portability of) social security.

The ILO has eight (up to date) Conventions and seven Recommendations relating to social security. Furthermore, on 14 June 2012, the ILO added one new recommendation on the social protection floors for social justice and a fair globalization. International labour standards are the principal means of action for the ILO to pursue its mandate with regards to social security and to support government’s efforts to promote social security. Unfortunately, the ILO conventions for the protection of migrant workers’ social security, and in particular Conventions 118 and 157, and Conventions 97 and 143 focusing specifically on migration have not been widely ratified.

Migrant workers are often explicitly excluded from social protection coverage. Workers in the mid-high skilled jobs may enjoy social protection particularly if granted permanent residency status. However, in a context where migration patterns are shifting to shorter and circular patterns, caution need to be exerted. Migrants classified as temporary workers are often excluded from social security provision on the basis of a false dichotomy between temporary and permanently employed workers. As contracts are frequently renewed, a ‘temporary’ worker may live for years in the host country and work for the same employer, yet not qualify for long term benefits.

Although States have a priority role to play in providing, facilitating, promoting, and extending coverage of social protection, trade unions (and employers’ organisations) should be involved in the design and management of social security systems. Therefore, social dialogue and tripartite participation, on an equal basis, are essential instruments for building fair and effective social protection systems.

Being part of the ILO’s tripartite structure, the Global Unions have successfully engaged with the ILO membership to establish national social protection floors during the International Labour Conference in 2011. At the last G20 Employment and Labour Minister’s Meeting held on September 2011, the Global Unions urged governments to place social protection at the heart of international development efforts in order to address the negative consequences of the global economic crisis and meet the commitments made to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals. Trade union organizations in the sending countries have an important role to play to ensure that the rights to social security of their (former) members are upheld in their host countries.

But while international trade unions have made social protection their main agenda particularly in recent years, they have yet to develop a clear position linking migration to social protection and finding strategies to strengthen mutual trade union mechanisms and ensure protection of migrant workers’ rights. Moreover, international organizations and trade unions in particular should take an integrated and comprehensive approach to migration issues in both labour-sending and receiving countries.

Assignment Overview

In 2011, the European Union awarded the ILO funding to better understand the issue of circular migration (INT/09/11/EEC), especially of health professionals. This project, named Decent Work Across Borders (DWAB) project: A Pilot project for Migrant Health Professionals and Skilled Workers, seeks to facilitate an approach to migration that benefits migrant workers, and the source and destination countries within a rights-based framework for labor migration management. A component of this project will be to address the need to raise the awareness of the challenges associated with access and portability of social protection of trade unions in source and host countries and to build their capacity to address those challenges.

This part of the project will be delivered in various forms including an inception paper, a working paper, a final working paper, audio files of interviews with key informants, and a complete bibliography. The working paper will at least cover but is not limited to issues related to the roles and responsibilities of trade unions with regard to access and portability of social protection entitlements for migrant workers, lessons learned and challenges associated to enhancing social protection to migrant workers in the context of circular migration arrangements, and recommendations for the way forward in developing a trade union action plan for the extension of accessibility and portability of social protection entitlement for migrant work. There can potentially be more dimensions added unto this paper depending on what is agreed upon for the final deliverable.
The output of this assignment is proposed to reach a wide audience composed of national and international trade union officials in Asia and Europe. Additionally, the working paper is intended to be used by ILO technical staff and specialists, government and employer’s officials who are dealing with migration issues, and relevant health professional organizations. This segment of the project started on 1 July 2013 until 15 October 2013.