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‘Imagine a day without migrant workers’

Dec 17,2015 - Last updated at Dec 19,2015

On December 18 it is International Migrants Day, a day of global solidarity with migrant workers — or “temporary expatriate” workers as they are called in the Arab world.

On this day in 1990, the United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Like all human beings, migrant workers are people with names, feelings and dignity. They carry with them stories, responsibilities and aspirations — and they have rights.

On International Migrants Day, let us consider the story of Anna, a Sri-Lankan woman who has been a migrant domestic worker in a Middle Eastern country for 20 years.

Her job was to clean, cook and look after two children who had grown up in her care, while both their parents were able to work full time.

Her desire and will to change the life of her own family in Sri Lanka for the better was thankfully matched by her employers’ fulfilment of their obligations towards her. Because of this, Anna was able to send her own children to university, and to happily and proudly attend their graduations.

Let us acknowledge Anna, who is now finally fulfilling her own dream of setting up a small catering business.

For her, unlike many of those who leave their families behind in search of better opportunities, often risking everything without safeguards, migration became a choice.

For too many others, it is still a “must”, a necessity often triggered by sheer lack of money to care for loved ones.

Globally, there are an estimated 232 million international migrants, and 25 million of them live in Arab states. Many work in sectors such as construction, agriculture and services, including domestic work. These tend to be demanding jobs, performed in difficult conditions.

While labour migration is generally welcomed by both countries of origin and destination, and while Anna’s story is one of progress and success — despite the many personal sacrifices she had to make — for too many other migrant workers, it is a story of suffering: Too many still end up trapped in exploitation, with hefty recruitment fees to be paid, without proper wages and at worst without freedom, in situations akin to forced labour, like modern-day slaves.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates some 600,000 cases of forced labour in the Middle East alone, and many of them are migrant workers.

On this occasion, then, let us try to understand some of the issues that migrant workers face.

Let us ask ourselves: Why did they migrate? How were they recruited, at what cost, and how did they finance those costs?

What working and living conditions do they face? Are they paid what they were promised, and on time? Do they have privacy?

How often do they see their families? Can they resign freely — with proper notice — if they are unhappy in their work, and at what cost?

Do they have access to complaint mechanisms in case of maltreatment? And what compensation modalities are in place at their countries of destination?

These are not questions that most of us need to ask ourselves concerning our own professional lives. But in the case of migrant workers, the answers to these questions reveal the challenges many face. They imply further that migrant workers still end up exploited, including in situations of forced labour.

We should reflect here that in the Arab world — as is the case, unfortunately, in too many other parts of the world — confiscating a migrant worker’s passport and denying her or him time off work and freedom of movement are considered normal practices by many, as are delays in payment of wages.

Think also of our own self-interest. Without doubt, we benefit hugely from the millions of “Annas” in the world.

They leave loved ones behind to take up jobs in another country — jobs that pay higher salaries than those back home, sure, but nevertheless jobs that entail such harsh working conditions and such inadequate pay that nationals refuse to do them.

What if this were to stop? What if tomorrow were a day without migrant workers? What if there were no Annas to “serve” us? What if there were no more garbage collectors, and no more migrants harvesting our fruits? And who would build our skyscrapers in the sweltering heat as we sit in our air-conditioned offices?

All would come to a grinding halt.

Labour migration is a very powerful contributor to development, both in countries of origin and at destination.

The topic is on every government’s national agenda, and UN member states acknowledged its significance, making it a central element of the Sustainable Development Goals.

There is thus an opportunity to formulate “fair” migration policies in line with international labour standards, where all benefit, including migrant workers, and where crooked recruiters and abusive employers are no longer condoned.

On December 18, let us appreciate what migrant workers give us — and in what conditions — and reflect on what we give them in return.

 

 

The writer is ILO regional director for Arab states. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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