Protecting and Integrating Migrants for More Vibrant Democracies

Authored by Solidarity Center

A vibrant democracy relies on the integration, protection, and participation of all sectors of society, including migrants. The majority of the world’s estimated 247 million migrants are disenfranchised: marginalized in their origin countries because being away from home for years at a time does not allow them to participate in political, economic and social decisions; and excluded in their destination countries because they are often denied any rights as members of society. Denying migrants’ basic democratic rights increases the potential for human rights and labor abuses by governments and employers, contributes to instability between the local population and migrants, constrains space for civic participation and democratic development, and hampers inclusive economic growth. Though the majority of the world’s countries are affected by migration, many governments continue to ignore and disenfranchise migrants, undermining social, political, and economic development.

The overwhelming majority of migrants worldwide migrate for work, and globally they generate billions of dollars each year (over $581 billion in 2015).Governments are increasingly promoting labor migration as a development solution, with origin countries relying on remittances and destination countries depending on cheap labor of migrant workers. However, these economic gains occur at the expense of migrants’ rights as humans, citizens, and workers. Most destination countries deny migrant workers fundamental labor rights such as freedom of association and the right to organize, and many explicitly exclude them from labor law protections. Contracts and flexible labor market systems often force migrant workers into the informal economy, characterized by minimal regulation, few legal protections, no benefits, and an absence of labor standards. The economic marginalization of migrant workers compounds their social and political exclusion, creating a global class of people deprived of voice, agency, and basic rights, and contributing to a crisis of democracy worldwide.

Currently, much of the US government international migration policy engagement is led by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), which has particular expertise on migrants in crisis situations. To address to the democratic challenge posed by increasing migration and to safeguard the rights, dignity, and livelihoods of migrants, the US must broaden its approach to migration beyond crisis response to encompass democracy, rights, and governance (DRG) and labor rights issues.

  • Labor  migration affects women’s economic empowerment.  In many developing countries women workers increasingly represent the majority of migrant and informal workers. As more women migrate, they become the largest share of exploited migrant workers.

  • Protecting migrant workers’ civil, human and worker rights is critical to maintaining civil society space and protecting democracy. Ensuring freedom of association and other rights for migrant workers increases inclusion and expands the democratic space for all citizens and civil society groups to exercise voice and agency.

  • Promoting freedom of association for migrant workers in both origin and destination countries empowers them with a voice and vehicle to advocate for their rights and livelihoods, contributing to shared prosperity and inclusive growth.

Upcoming Opportunities

Prioritize the SDGs on labor migration: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides governments and multilateral organizations with globally accepted nationally applicable targets on migration and development. Together, SDGs 8, 10, and 16 promote the protection of labor rights, safe migration processes (including eradication of forced labor), secure working environments, access to justice and reducing the costs of migration for all migrant workers. The US should develop concrete measures to enact goals 8.7, 8.8, 10.7, 10c, and 16.3 in partnership with other governments, including by expanding job opportunities for migrant workers at home, protecting core labor rights and decent work for all migrant workers (including those in the informal economy), providing access to social protection, and creating avenues for participation in social dialogue.

Increase foreign assistance programs to promote migrant worker rights and ensure that such programs are integrated with overall democracy, rights, and governance and inclusive growth frameworks.

Promote the US government policy of no fees to migrant workers in the recruitment process. The US government should continue to expand its global leadership in promoting the policy of no recruitment fees to migrant workers to partner governments in bilateral and multilateral agreements, and in its own policies, procurement, and development programs.

Enhance the role of U.S. government labor-related agencies in international migration policy. The US should enhance the roles of agencies with expertise in labor migration issues in forums such as the United Nations High-Level Dialogue on Migration and Development, Global Forum on Migration and Development, International Labor Organization (ILO) and International Organization for Migration (IOM), and in the development of the United Nations Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Alongside PRM, elevate the labor expertise of  State Department’s Special Representative on Labor Affairs; the International Labor Affairs Office at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL); the Labor Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (DOL-ILAB) DRG staff at USAID in such policy spaces.

Enforce migrant worker rights in trade agreements. The US should ensure that labor standards in bilateral and multilateral trade agreements are applied to all workers, including migrants. The US should condition GSP and other trade preferences on effectively addressing severe exploitation of migrant workers, like forced labor and other forms of human trafficking.


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