Safeguarding the Movement of Migrant Workers

In a world where capital, technology, and labor are increasingly mobile, migrant workers are vital to the global workforce. However, to date they have not received significant attention from business.
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International labor migration is a burgeoning byproduct of globalization, with more than 214 million migrant workers worldwide. As emerging economies continue to grow -- despite the global downturn -- an increasing percentage of these workers are moving between developing countries and, in many cases, having their fundamental rights undermined during the recruitment and employment process.

In a world where capital, technology, and labor are increasingly mobile, migrant workers are vital to the global workforce. However, to date they have not received significant attention from business. Migration Linkages, a BSR initiative to help business better protect international migrant workers, is part of an effort to change the prevailing status quo and increase understanding, practical action, and put a human face on the issues faced by migrant workers.

Over the past two years, from factories in Penang, Malaysia, to the recruitment agencies of Manila and Hanoi and the migrant worker camps of the UAE, we have seen firsthand how migrant workers are often the most at-risk workers in global supply chains. They are a source of persistent and growing challenges for many of BSR's member companies in the apparel, information and communications technology, construction, and hospitality sectors.

For most, the decision to migrate is driven by a need to survive, not free choice. Workers often migrate across international borders at great personal and financial cost, they are often isolated from their families left behind in their countries of origin, and, consequently, are susceptible to mental health problems. For example, increased depression among migrant worker populations is fueling increased suicide rates in some destination countries. And as we've noted in a recently released toolkit on managing migrant workers, addressing issues of culture and gender play a major role in determining whether basic rights are protected and dignities maintained.

It has long been recognized that global migration is ever-changing and complex. The global recruitment system that is the conduit for workers seeking employment is often anything but transparent, and national laws too often treat the issue as a security matter rather than a labor or human rights one.

The picture, however, is not entirely bleak. Governments in developing countries as well as countries importing goods are taking steps to increase transparency and better protect rights. At a state level, the recently passed California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 is seen as an important step in the movement to abolish human trafficking -- an issue tied closely labor migration. We have also seen governments from Bangladesh to India taking practical steps to better protect their citizen workers overseas. Some businesses are also taking a leadership role in trying to address the issues through explicit reference to migrant workers in their formal labor policies. Though these steps signal movement in the right direction, there is much to be done.

Fundamental and sustained change is still needed and must be found in the collective commitment of all major parties: government, civil society, and business. And this is also why engagement of all major actors in the migration process is at the heart of BSR's Migration Linkages initiative. You can also see this collective effort the commitment next week in Mexico at the 2010 Global Forum on Migration and Development.

According to one of our partners in Malaysia who is a longtime champion of migrant worker and women's rights, "Migrant workers are human beings with rights and dignity -- they have feelings and social and economic needs. If we don't recognize this, where is their future?"

As the backbone of many industries in our global economy, if we don't take sustained action, soon the question may become, "Where is our future?"

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