Financial Times

Rights based approach for labour migration

Sri Lanka has to change national laws to allow a ‘human rights based’ approach to labour migration, says the Director of the National Workers Congress - Migrant Workers Centre (NWC- MSC), G.D.G.P. Soysa.

“With the ratification of UN Convention 1990 by Sri Lanka in 1996 and its entry into force in July 2003, Sri Lanka is obliged to bring in changes to the law, to enable a human rights based regime, in the enterprise of migration,” he says in a paper titled ‘Towards a Rights Based Approach in Labour Migration,’

The Convention can be used as a tool to demand human, social, political, cultural and economic rights, hitherto not provided nor-recognised for migrant workers. Migrant workers associations have taken the lead to demand political rights and absentee voting rights for migrant workers. This is because the franchise could strengthen migrant workers to ensure basic rights for them through Sri Lanka’s political system.

The paper also notes that trade unions can take a lead in this process and can demand an ILO Convention on rights of migrant domestic workers at the upcoming International Labour Conference in Geneva.

Waves of migration
Mr Soysa explains in his paper that five distinct waves of migration can be traced due to migrant friendly policies. The first wave began in the 17th century, when Britain, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands and France established colonies that allowed their epanding populations to settle in new territories.

A second wave took place during the same period and permitted a system of chattel slavery for the plantations and mines of the New world. European traders transported slaves and indentured labour from South Africa and Asia for employment in East Asia, Malaysia, Trinidad and Jamaica. An estimated 15 million slaves were transported to the America’s before 1950. The British colonial authorities are estimated to have recruited over 30 million people from the Indian subcontinent to work in the Caribbean, Malaysia and East Africa. Between 1800 to 1930, 40 million Europeans migrated as permanent settlers to North and South America and Australia. (Decloities 1967).

A third wave of migration took place after World War I. New states were created, ethnic divisions became prominent. Geographical and geopolitical impulses led to refugee flows. It was during this period that refugee movements commenced.

The fourth wave of migration began after World War II, with the demolition of colonial empires and the creation of independent states in Asia, Middle East and Africa. Large refugee flows took place in South Asia.

A fifth wave of international migration, almost over lapping the fourth, emerged in the 1950’s and 1960’s, for reconstruction and development in Western Europe and the USA. Colonial powers allowed migrants from their former colonies. With petrol price hikes, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq and Persian Gulf states recruited migrant workers from Arab states and South Asia, to meet short falls in labour.

Middle East migration
Migration of labour to the Middle East commenced with the oil price boom in Gulf countries in the seventies. This ‘single migrant’, ‘temporary’ flow of labour, has effects that are fundamentally different from past migrations. It has socio-cultural and human costs. Long periods of separation affect family relationships and marriage. Adjustments pose heavy emotional and psychological strains. Middle East migration covers a range of manpower from unskilled labour to the skilled and professional groups. In the case of the Philippines and Sri Lanka, it has led to feminisation of labour markets. (49.1% of migrants from Sri Lanka are women).

However, remittances give a tremendous boost to balance of payments of South Asian and East Asian countries and have had an impact on changing existing social stratification. Sri Lanka is very largely dependent on remittances to sustain the economy. With the global economy in a crisis remittances are a vital source of scarce earnings for development.

Managing migration
Inter-dependence prevails between supplying and receiving countries, with suppliers heavily dependent on a migrant work force. In the Middle East, it is a structural challenge for labour receivers as they have to rely on a large stock of overseas migrant labour to maintain and expand their economies.

In this situation, the paper notes that countries need to manage the process of migration to create stable and mutually beneficial conditions in the long term. Caution should also be exercised to ensure availability of ample skills to meet domestic demand. However, the dynamics of the process is complex. While policy makers devise temporary strategies for promotion of migration, soon it goes beyond control.

The persistence of migrant flows, ongoing struggle with illegal recruiting agencies, increase in smuggling, trafficking and other clandestine movements, the rise of formal and informal institutions to service the varied needs of the migrants breeds unantcipated outcomes that call for new, almost unfamiliar interventions in policy.

Therefore, the paper calls for adequate safe guards for the protection and welfare of migrants.
“Information services which are complete and reliable should be available to people who desire to go abroad or return to the country. Services to returning migrants should be properly designed and adequately provided. Re-integration measures should provide for long term employment on return and profitable use of earnings made through overseas employment,” says the paper.

Trade unions
Trade unions in receiving countries normally fear recruitment of foreign labour, as labour imports would lead to a decline in standards and wages for nationals and loss of bargaining power with employers.
On the other hand, employers make representations to their governments to offer flexible migration policies for recruitment of skills in short supply. Therefore, social partners have a distinct role to play in this situation.

“ILO Convention 181 provides a guideline for action. It also provides for an inspectorate capable of raiding law breakers and enforcing migration rules,” says the paper. The paper also notes that trade unions can help organise migrant workers and can approach the subject of worker’s rights by addressing themselves as a social movement, to regulate the labour market. They can help to create a positive image of regular migration and highlight the anti-trafficking and anti-human smuggling efforts which are being addressed by States of origin, to overcome irregular migration and trafficking.

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