As the United Nations Sets Policies on Migration, Who Speaks for Migrant Workers?

10/02/2013 12:40 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

In our increasingly interconnected world, international migration is fundamentally reshaping the world of work and challenging governments to rethink how they treat those living within their borders. Some 214 million migrants across the world today work in a wide range of industries, from low-wage jobs in agriculture and construction to higher-wage jobs in technology, nursing and education. They have traveled long distances to support their families, find decent work and build a better life. Sadly, they are often forced to endure poor working conditions, discrimination and abuse, including forced labor and human trafficking.

How these workers move and under what terms are critical questions for global economic and political development.

Instead, lawmakers are increasingly outsourcing their responsibilities and turning to corporate-driven policies that leave migrant workers with few rights. As part of the ongoing meetings of the U.N. General Assembly, the United Nations will convene a high-level dialogue on migration and development this week, where top government representatives will come together to discuss how to implement migration policies and how to tie the policies to national development.

For more than a year, hundreds of representatives from national, regional and international organizations met at more than 20 preparatory events around the world and in a U.N. civil society hearing to develop a shared analysis and a five-year action plan for governments. Yet member states are refusing to incorporate these inputs into their positions. And among civil society speakers nominated to participate in the U.N. dialogue, only a very limited number were guaranteed a seat at the table. Of those, the United Nations and member states saw fit to include a major labor recruiter and a for-profit development firm but not representatives from organizations that represent workers.

The United Nation's recent refusal to deal fairly with its own workers and negotiate with their union further underscores a disturbing trend away from workers' rights within the international body. The U.N. staff ensures U.N. programs run smoothly and often operates in dangerous environments -- in the past two years, 220 U.N. staff members have been killed in attacks, in addition to the 102 who died in the earthquake in Haiti. As the global organization designated to uphold international human and labor rights conventions, it undermines the important work of the United Nations when its own practices do not reflect its guiding principles.

Although the inner processes and policies of the United Nations may seem far from the concerns of working people, governments are using the space to address a fundamental question that implicates the entirety of the global labor market: How should people be treated as they move from their communities and across borders?

There is little space on the international stage for a rights-based discussion on how workers move and under what terms. Many workers take on enormous debt with unscrupulous labor recruiters to enter an array of state-run temporary visa programs, which tie workers to their employers, undermine prevailing wages and working conditions and, as the International Labor Organization notes, provide "labour without people" by denying workers their fundamental rights and keeping them from their families. Others -- often displaced by one-sided trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement -- cross dangerous borders for work and must remain silent in the face of abuse to avoid harsh immigration enforcement measures.

Immigration law enforcement continues to separate migrant families through deportation. In the meantime, employers profit from a legally vulnerable workforce. Instead of working with the full spectrum of civil society, decision makers are taking their cues from business interests and advancing positions to facilitate the movement of people to meet the labor needs of capital without recognizing the human needs of workers.

U.N. member states are currently coalescing around so-called "ethical labor recruitment" regimes as a solution to the abuses being noted by workers' rights advocates. But these mechanisms overwhelmingly rely on labor brokers to police themselves while profiting from the business of moving people without being overly burdened with governmental regulation. This system is disturbingly similar to the myriad corporate social responsibility audits that proliferate internationally and rely on the voluntary compliance of large corporations that face inspections from corporate-funded third-party organizations. The efficacy of this approach has been starkly displayed in the continued fatal working conditions in the garment sweatshops of Bangladesh.

At a time of considerable international debate and conflict on migration policies, including historic immigration reforms under way in North America, opportunities to collectively assess global migration and develop strategies to advance migrants' rights are critically important. The United Nations and member states, unfortunately, are squandering this opportunity. A forum that silences the voices of migrant workers will not instill confidence.

Advocates for rights-based migration policies will continue to push for policy change outside the United Nations, but many, including the AFL-CIO, will no longer legitimize this insider process. Our message is clear: In order to build a global economy that emphasizes shared prosperity and decent work over corporate profits, the protection of workers and their families must be at the forefront of the international agenda on migration.

Richard Trumka is president of the 12.2 million-member AFL-CIO and the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC), which represents 66 million working people in the 30 OECD countries.