September 2013, No. 3 Vol. L, Migration

There are over 100 million migrant workers living and working around the globe. Together with their families they represent most of the international migrants now estimated at 232 million people living outside their country of origin.1 Almost half are women, migrating increasingly for employment. About one in eight are between the ages of 15 and 24. South-South migration has now surpassed South-North migration: more than 50 per cent of emigrants from developing countries move to another developing country, and largely within their region.2 Nearly 80 per cent of South-South migration is between countries with a common border.3

For most, finding decent, better paying jobs, is at the heart of their quest to move. The lack of economic livelihood and income inequality in their home country is a driving force. Young people entering the workforce are particularly affected as they are overrepresented in sectors such as construction, manufacturing, and services that are more vulnerable to economic downturns. Those who find jobs often work below their skill level; 32 per cent of migrants with university degrees are working in middle to low skilled occupations.4 The International Labour Organization (ILO) figures show that we face a continuing rise in unemployment in those under the age of 24 over the next five years (see graph). Some now refer to these young workers as the “crisis generation.”5

For workers of every age who are leaving declining rural economies, much of their drive is forced by significant problems related to poor infrastructure, agricultural land degradation, water scarcity and, increasingly, climate or weather related disasters.6 Communities already threatened by water scarcity, food and housing insecurity, low employment and the spread of disease are likely to become more vulnerable to disasters.7 This includes much of the developing world—“one in 19 persons living in developing countries may be affected, in comparison to 1 in 1,500 persons in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.”8


Unsustainable development, poor development and inequitable development lead to failure in the jobs market. Demographic and economic inequalities, combined with vulnerability to crises, are expected to lead to rising migration levels for decades to come.

Labour mobility can foster new opportunities for workers who would otherwise be unemployed, and improve the productivity and prosperity of businesses in need of workers. Migrants contribute to host countries by filling jobs that spur economic growth, and to home countries by sending remittances back—$500 billion a year (estimated by the World Bank in 2012), with over $400 billion going to families in developing countries. The level of remittances globally has grown in spite of economic or political crises. Remittances to developing countries increased 5 per cent last year and ten-fold the amount in 1990.

With such large transfers that exceed three times the total amount of overseas development assistance and foreign direct investment combined, governments and international agencies debate how best to harness these financial flows for macro-economic prosperity. This has led to policy planning in some cases that runs dangerously close to viewing migrant workers as a commodity: how can they be better exported, imported and measured for economic impact or gain? In the worst forms—for unscrupulous agents—the goal is how they can be bartered, trafficked and traded.9

Much less attention has been focused on planning that responds to the needs of the men and women migrant workers whose earnings are expanding host and home country economies. Development strategies and labour policies tend not to focus on the needs of migrant workers—how to better enable them to support their families and communities at home. Yet, these issues are directly related to improved development outcomes. Ensuring migrant family social security, health and education is related to decent working conditions and wages and reduced exploitation and human rights abuse. Jobs matching and the upscaling of skills, portability of pensions, and reintegration of migrants returning to home economies improve their opportunities to contribute to development. Tackling these issues will require better harmonization of employment and labour migration policies in ways that are linked to development planning. This means addressing issues related to the growing informal sectors in developed and developing countries. A large informal economy, weak labour policy and insufficient labour migration management capacities prevent most destination and origin countries from realizing the benefits that positive labour migration can stimulate.

Migrant workers are often overrepresented in the informal economy in sectors that entrench inequalities, including gender inequalities, and which are characterized by ill-treatment, trafficking and smuggling as well as social dumping. They are often not covered by national labour laws and can be subject to poor and unsafe working conditions, low wages, inadequate health care and unsuitable housing. Social protection may be denied in law or practice, increasing the risk of poverty upon their return home, especially if they suffer from injuries related to their employment.

Migrant workers, especially those in an irregular situation, often face discrimination and denial of basic services, particularly children’s access to health and education. The growth in temporary labour migration schemes raises other human rights issues, such as freedom of association and collective bargaining, nondiscrimination and equal treatment. Of serious concern is that migrant workers do not have equal rights or equal access to judicial and non-judicial remedies for rights violations.10

Development outcomes can be achieved more broadly, equitably, and inclusively if national policies incorporate the goal of decent work for all, implement ILO standards, and engage workers and employers associations, migrant workers and other stakeholders who are directly impacted by such policies. Protection gaps can be closed by more effectively implementing international human rights norms and ratifying and enforcing labour standards, including Conventions 97 and 143 and their corresponding Recommendations 86 and 151. Governments should ensure that all workers, irrespective of status, enjoy their fundamental rights as specified in the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The ILO Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration of 2006 provides further guidance on the practices needed to improve migrant worker protection.

One of the gravest challenges for realizing positive development gains is xenophobia and discrimination against migrant workers. ILO has helped test for discrimination in access to employment, including by supporting surveys on public perception of migrant workers. For example, in Malaysia, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and Thailand, a survey has shown that there is wide public recognition of the need for migrant workers but negative attitudes towards their equal treatment. This problem persists in all regions of the world.


ILO has begun working in the field more concertedly with local partners to reduce discrimination via innovative campaigns for public education and technical assistance on new policy approaches.11 ILO is also examining how labour market institutions, including minimum wages, can better level the playing field for all workers. In 2004, the office argued for “earned adjustment,” under which migrant workers in an irregular situation could eventually acquire regular status by demonstrating employment and satisfying other conditions.12 Many countries regularize migrant workers (e.g., Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Panama, Spain, South Africa, Thailand, the United States), which helps to promote their social inclusion.

ILO is also designing and testing new methods for measuring migrant worker outcomes related to immigration policies, such as temporary worker programmes, to improve understanding of whether and under what circumstances policies lead to better or worse development outcomes. Results can help governments better conduct labour market needs assessments and reorient programmes to better link-up with positive gains for workers, including migrant workers.

The office is assisting a number of countries in better coordinating migration and employment policies, developing agreements for social security portability, and improving migration governance, including among other issues, most recently in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Mauritius, Moldova, Tajikistan, the Philippines, Ukraine, South Africa, and Sri Lanka, and working with regional entities such as the Southern African Development Community and Association of Southeast Asian Nations to improve regional labour mobility governance and social dialogue.13

ILO is also exploring how to better support migrant workers seeking to form their own cooperatives by pooling their remittances to finance small and medium enterprises. Cooperatives are owned and democratically controlled by their members, balancing profitability with human needs. Cooperative systems in 20 European countries already control 21 per cent of the market share of deposits among 3,874 local banks with 181 million customers, and have 5.5 trillion euros in assets, while credit unions have 200 million members globally and over 1 trillion euros in assets. The Philippines Sorosoro Ibaba Development Cooperative is an example of a manufacturing and agriculture cooperative that allows migrants to save and invest with the cooperative, and to benefit from training programmes.

Similarly, ILO is fostering partnerships with private businesses that hire migrant workers to give back to development by providing financial literacy and business management skills to migrants before they return home. These types of entrepreneurial activities can lead directly to remittance investment in community jobs and local economic growth.


Until we recognize fully that labour mobility is critical to development strategies, development will be neither sustainable nor equitable for the many. Migrants are not a static function of the economy of only one country—but dynamic. Workers come from the labour force of one country, join the labour force of another country, may leave and enter the labour market of a third country, and return home all in the span of a few years, contributing to the economies of several countries.

Given the need to share experiences and the fundamental links of development to labour migration, the world of work needs to be adequately reflected in and mainstreamed into global debates on international development. Anticipating ILO leadership of the Global Migration Group (GMG) in 2014 and to better chart its future strategy for action in light of the outcomes of the United Nations General Assembly High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development, ILO is convening a Tripartite Technical Meeting on Labour Migration from 4-8 November 2013, with other important stakeholders, including GMG agencies and civil society organizations, as observers.

Moving forward in development means better understanding and addressing the needs of all workers, including migrant workers. Sustainable development that provides an abundance of jobs to match workers’ skills at all levels, that provides decent wages and social benefits, that closes the gap between rich and poor (rather than widening it) and that provides environmentally sound, healthy and equitable conditions of work will serve as a more durable engine for growth and innovation.

Decent work is a key driver of development, and decent work is a key driver of migration. Planning for the future which incorporates the needs of migrant workers and their families can better ensure that labour mobility does not fuel unacceptable forms of work but instead fuels inclusive economic development. Making our development goals more concrete and bringing good practices of labour governance closer to the sight of those building for change will help this vision of development become a reality in the post-2015 world.


1       United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Trends in international Migrant Stock: 2013 revision (United Nations database, POP/DB/MIG/Rev.2013)(forthcoming).

2       United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, International Migration Report (2010).

3       Dilip Ratha and William Shaw, “South-South Migration and Remittances”, World Bank Working Paper no. 102 (Washington, D.C., World Bank, 2007), p.2.

4       Youth employment brief, “Reaping the Benefits and Mitigating the Risks of Youth Labour Migration,” presented at the United Nations International Youth Day 12 August 2013 (ILO).

5       See BBC news, Mark Lowen, “Greece’s young: Dreams on hold as fight for jobs looms”, 29 May 2013. Available from

6       Michelle Leighton, Xiaomeng Shen, and Koko Warner, eds. “Climate change and Migration: Rethinking Policies for Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction” (United Nations University, 2011). Available from

7       Michelle Leighton, “Population Displacement, Relocation, and Migration”, in The Law of Adaptation to Climate Change: U.S. and International Aspects, Michael B. Gerrard, Katrina Fischer Kuh, eds. (American Bar Association, 2012).

8       Report of Proceedings, Fourth Meeting of the Global Forum on Migration and Development (Mexico, 8-11 November 2010), p. 37.

9       Of the 20.9 million victims globally, 9.1 million had moved internally or internationally. ILO: Global Estimate of Forced Labour, (2012), p. 17.

10     As stipulated in the Migration for Employment (Revised) Convention, 1949 (no. 97), Art. 6(1)(d).

11     See, e.g., current ILO labour migration projects at:

12     ILO, towards a fair deal for migrant workers in the global economy, Report VI, ILC, 92nd Session, (Geneva, 2004), para. 399.

13     See no. 11.