Who are Migrant Workers?

A migrant worker is a person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which they are not a national[1] (information on internal migrant workers is included in a separate call-out box below). Migrant labour is work undertaken by individuals, families or communities who have moved from abroad. Migrant workers contribute to growth and development in their ‘host’ countries or regions, while countries or regions of origin benefit from the skills these workers gather while away, and from any taxes or remittances sent ‘home’.

Migrant workers often face challenges to and abuse of their human and labour rights in the workplace due to discrimination against them. This can occur in many ways, such as:

  • Unfair recruitment practices, such as charging fees, requiring migrants to put up a bond, or giving misleading or incorrect information about a promised job
  • Trafficking or smuggling workers across borders for work, and/or entering the worker into forced labour in the new destination
  • Unequal access to employment rights, remuneration, social security, trade union rights, employment taxes or access to legal proceedings and remediation
  • Workplace racism or discrimination

What is the Dilemma?

Migrant workers can make a positive contribution to business performance and productivity by filling skill gaps, increasing access to international knowledge, strengthening contacts in international networks and local networks through new language skills and cultural awareness.

However, migrant labour can also pose a dilemma to businesses as migrant workers — whether in a regular or an irregular situation — can face a range of challenges to their rights, including discrimination from other workers, employers and laws, unfair working conditions and harmful recruitment practices. Migrant workers are particularly at risk of other human rights violations, such as being trapped in forced labour due to abuse of vulnerability, a lack of understanding of their rights and a lack of social capital or power.

Businesses can struggle to ensure that migrant workers in their operations and supply chains have their rights upheld, especially when Governments do not fulfil their duty to protect and their obligations under international human rights instruments (such as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families).

Internal Migrant Workers

While this issue focuses on international migrant workers given their particular vulnerabilities to labour rights abuses, internal migrant workers also face similar challenges in securing adequate working and living conditions.

Exact global figures for the number of internal labour migrants (those who have moved within their country for work) are not known. However, disruptions arising out of the coronavirus pandemic have drawn global attention to their plight — particularly in India, where millions of internal migrants were left economically devastated from state-wide lockdowns in 2020.

Internal migrants remain on the periphery of the COVID-19 recovery process and are disadvantaged when it comes to securing social protections, safe living and working conditions and access to justice. India’s migrant crisis has also put the spotlight on other countries whose economies are dependent on internal migration, such as China, Thailand, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Brazil.

Prevalence of Migrant Labour

According to the UN World Migration Report 2020, there have been ‘historic’ changes in migration in the last decade, and even in the last two years, including a rapid increase in the number of displaced people in the world. While many of those displaced are fleeing from harm, many others are migrating due to dire economic conditions. It is estimated that there were more than 280 million international migrants globally in 2020, 245 million of which are working age (aged 15 and over). According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the number of international migrant workers totalled 169 million in 2021, constituting nearly 5% of the global workforce.

Key drivers contributing to the growing mobility of workers:

  • Lack of jobs and decent working conditions
  • The widening income inequalities within and between countries
  • A growing demand for skilled and low-skilled workers in migrant destination countries (often driven by strong growth, ‘shortages’ of domestic labour or rigid societal norms)
  • Demographic changes, with countries with declining labour forces and aging populations

Key trends include:

  • According to the ILO, women constitute 41.5% and men 58.5% of migrant workers (2021).
  • Sector figures show that 66.2% of migrant workers are in services, 26.7% are in industry and 7.1% are in agriculture (2021).
  • Of the estimated 169 million international migrant workers, 67.4% are in high-income countries and 19.5% in upper middle-income countries (2021).
  • ILO research suggests that the world’s migrant workers are distributed among the major regions as follows: Europe and Central Asia, 37.7%; Americas, 25.6%; Arab States, 14.3%; Asia and the Pacific, 14.2%; and Africa, with only 8.1% (2021).
  • The labour force participation rate of migrants at 69% is higher than the labour force participation of non-migrants at 60.4% (2021).

Impacts on Businesses

Businesses can be impacted by migrant labour risks in their operations and supply chains in multiple ways:

  • Legal risk: There is a close link between migrant labour and human rights abuses such as forced labour, modern slavery and child labour, as migrant workers are often in situations of vulnerability. Companies can face legal charges and severe consequences if they are found to have any of the above issues in their operations or supply chains.
  • Reputational and brand risk: Campaigns by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), trade unions, consumers and other stakeholders against multinational corporations (MNCs) alleged to abuse migrant workers can result in reduced sales and brand erosion.
  • Financial risk: Suppliers and clients may end contracts and relationships with companies that are found to abuse migrant workers’ rights, or be linked to abuse, in their supply chain, resulting in reduced sales. Divestment and/or avoidance by investors and finance providers (many of which are increasingly applying environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria to their decision-making) can result in reduced or more expensive access to capital and reduced shareholder value.
  • Loss of diversity, skills and creativity: Where migrant workers are not treated fairly or with respect, they may leave for other employment and leave behind a skills gap.
  • Operational risk: Changes to a company’s supply chains made in response to the discovery of harmful migrant labour conditions may result in disruption. For example, companies may feel the need to terminate supplier contracts (resulting in potentially higher costs and/or disruption) and direct sourcing activities to lower-risk locations.

Impacts on Human Rights

Abuse of migrant workers has the potential to impact a range of human rights,[2] including but not limited to:

  • Right to equality of treatment and non-discrimination (ICRMW, Articles 43 and 45, ICCPR, Article 2, ICESCR, Article 2): Migrant workers can be subject to unequal treatment when compared to nationals. This is likely to occur in recruitment processes, their treatment at the workplace as well as in terms of the legal protections that they are afforded in the workplace.
  • Right to freedom from slavery and forced labour (UDHR, Article 4, ICRMW, Article 11, ICCPR, Article 8): Migrant workers are at a higher risk of being subject to conditions that may amount to forced labour and/or modern slavery. For example, migrant workers may face the retention of identity documents, debt bondage and restriction of movement, which are some of the indicators of forced labour.
  • Right to freedom of movement (ICRMW, Article 39, UDHR, Article 13): The freedom of movement of migrant workers can be severely restricted through, for example, the confiscation of passports or other travel documents.
  • Right of migrants to form, join and participate in associations and trade unions (ICRMW, Article 26 and 40; ICCPR, Article 22; ICESCR, Article 8): In many situations, migrants may — due to their legal status, the legal frameworks in which they operate in or their relatively weak negotiating position — be denied the right to freedom of association. ICCPR and ICESCR specify that all workers (including migrant workers in a regular situation) have the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of their interests. In addition, Article 26 of the ICRMW affords migrant workers in both regular and irregular situations the right to join and participate in the activities of associations and trade unions.
  • Right to just and favourable conditions of work (ICRMW, Article 25; ICESCR, Article 7): Many migrants experience lower pay and poorer working conditions than their domestic counterparts. This can be due to discrimination, prevailing legal frameworks, the legal status of migrant workers and market dynamics.
  • Right to an adequate standard of living (including access to adequate food, clothing, housing and water) (ICRMW, Article 43; ICESCR, Article 11): Companies that provide housing to migrant workers can directly infringe on this right if the housing is not of an adequate standard.
  • Rights to cultural identity (ICRMW, Article 31, ICCPR, Article 27): Migrants have the right to enjoy their own culture, practice their own religion, and to speak their own language without discrimination. Due to their status, migrant workers may be denied this right as a matter of official policy or through societal discrimination.
  • Right to an effective remedy for acts violating fundamental rights (ICRMW, Article 83, ICCPR, Article 3): A lack of accessible operational-level grievance mechanisms may hinder migrant workers from accessing remedies for human and labour rights abuses. This is particularly the case where the legal framework and culture in a country prevent migrants from seeking adequate access to remedy.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The following SDG targets relate to migrant workers:

  • Goal 8 (“Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”), Target 8.8: Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment
  • Goal 10 (“Reduce inequality within and among countries”), Target 10.7: Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies

Key Resources

The following resources provide further information on how businesses can address violations of migrant workers’ rights in their operations and supply chains:

  • ILO, Fair Recruitment Toolkit: A modular training manual on fair recruitment to support in the design and implementation of fair recruitment practices.
  • Institute for Human Rights and Business, Migration with Dignity: A Guide to Implementing the Dhaka Principles: A practical guide to implementing the Dhaka Principles of fair and equal labour for migrants. The Dhaka Principles provide a roadmap that traces the migrant worker from recruitment, through employment, to the end of contract and provides key principles that employers and migrant recruiters should respect at each stage in the process to ensure migration with dignity.
  • BSR, Migrant Worker Management Toolkit: A Global Framework: A toolkit for respecting the rights of migrant workers throughout businesses and global supply chains.