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Labour Migration: Trade Unions Moving From Lamentations To Capacity Building



The undocumented status of an overwhelming number of migrant workers has given way to increasing injustice and abuse against them. While not always making headlines, reports of injustice and abuse against migrants abound.

Whilst the mainstream media dedicate attention and reporting time and space to refugees and migrants’ movement, very little attention is paid to the exploitation of labour migrants.

Out of fear of displacement and deportation, many migrant workers living in slave like conditions often remain unable to protest inadequate conditions or report employer’s violation of labour, health or safety laws to state authorities.

Yet, migrant workers continue to contribute significantly to global economy. The ILO estimates that 70 percent of migrants are workers.

With Europe and the U.S tightening immigration controls, and making access to legitimate and official entry more difficult and long, migrants desperate to leave their countries have continued to resort to desperate measures across deadly deserts, jungles, and the Mediterranean Sea. Sadly, where there is desperation, exploitation thrives.

From migrant farm workers in Italy to domestic workers in Kuwait, labour migrants are enduring extreme levels of labour exploitation, coercion, and inhumane working and living conditions. Meanwhile, those who enjoy the benefits of their struggles remain oblivious to their suffering.

Rather than address their plights, some politicians in Europe have sometimes used migration as a tool for politicking, populism, and division. In Africa, heads of governments have paid less attention even as the teeming youths from the continent continue to embrace desperate and dangerous migration journeys with increasing humanitarian and dire consequences, including fatalities.

For many years, Trade unions were in dilemma on how to defend rights of migrant workers who are in precarious work. Migrant workers were not seen as traditional trade union constituency. Unions were more focused on the regular local workers.

But this has changed now. Over the last decade, a number of trade union movements have respond very positively towards organsing migrant and workers.

Trade unions relying on its time-tested slogan of “an injury to one is an injury to all” as the rallying call for their decision to pay more focused attention to the situation of labour migrants and to work together with other stakeholders to contribute to improving the lots of labour migrants.

“As we know, the majority of migrants are in precarious jobs that are unstable and insecure, and which offer them limited or no rights, protections, and benefits. We, therefore, urge governments and employers to extend decent work provisions and protection to migrant workers through social dialogue. We also call on trade unions to organize migrant workers to deepen the power of the working class,” President of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Ayuba Wabba said during the 2019 World Day of Decent Work.

One of the challenges migrant workers face is  lack of migrant workers unions, therefore have weak bargaining power. To address this challenge, trade unions are prioritizing organising migrants.

While United Nations (UN) agencies like the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and International Organisation on Migration (IOM) continue to dialogue with governments to put in place conventions that supports fair Labour migration governance, Unions affirm that migrant workers are their constituents and members of their constituencies.

To speak for this vulnerable group, and put pressure on governments to implement the GCM and other conventions which protect rights of migrant workers, trade unions under various regional and international platforms such as ATUMNET, the Council of Global Unions (CGU) Working Group on Migration (WGM) and ITUC, trade unions are forming coalitions and consensus to articulate common positions on migrant workers’ rights and standards nationally, regionally, and globally.

Capacity building is now being giving priority by trade unions as part of strategies to protect the rights of migrant workers, irrespective of their nationalities, race, creed, and gender, though with resolve to consciously pay attention to the plight of women domestic workers given the higher levels of vulnerabilities.

In particular, trade unions express worry about unfair recruitment of migrant workers practices such as the Kafala system in the Gulf Cooperation States, that exposes migrants workers to exploitation and other vulnerabilities, as well as contribute to their depravity.

“Trade Unions are conscious of the fact that knowledge and capacities are necessary to aid their effective contribution to the improvement of labour migration governance in Africa and beyond,” Comrade Uchenna Ike, a trade unionist in Abuja said.

It is evident that more than ever before, labour migration is taking centre stage in global discourse and especially among trade union leaders across the world.

“For African Trade Unions, though they are considered late responders to the migration governance crisis, they have since stepped up their engagement and making their voices count on the need to secure guarantees for the effective protection of the human and labour rights of labour migrants,” the African Trade Union Migration Network (ATUMNET) stated in a communiqué at the end of its Rwanda meeting in early June 2019.

“Migration is not a crisis. We continue to see and appreciate its contributions to the economies of states,” Akhator Joel Odigie, the Coordinator, Human, and Trade Union Rights at the ITUC – Africa said.

It would be recalled that in June 2019 about 50 trade unionists from 18 African countries met in Kigali under the umbrella of ATUMNET. Their main objective was to seek strategies to contribute to the effective improvement of labour migration governance in Africa and outside the continent. Other aims include: to strengthen the capacities of Trade Unions in the governance of African labour migration; strategise on ways that trade unions can pragmatically and effectively contribute to the effective implementation of the Global Compact on Migration.

In October, trade unionists from Europe, and Africa again met in Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the seat of the EU to continue their brainstorming on more ways organised labour can further contribute to progressive global migration and labour migration governance. The meeting has been described as, so far, the biggest meeting between trade unions across different continents in an attempt to discuss and review organised labour’s contributions to the governance of migration so far at the national, regional and global levels.

Reacting to the involvement of unions in Labour migration, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) focal person on Migration, James Eustance said: “Trade Unions contribution is helping to change the narrative. Migration is now a major issue of discuss among trade unions and trade unions have intensify efforts and approaches in ensuring fair, orderly and regulation migration, which the GCM centred on. Trade Unions across the globe, regional, sub-regional and national levels have evolved various initiatives to engage in policies and strategies development that will promote the protection of labour and human rights of migrants and tackle exploitation and guarantee decent work and decent life for migrant workers and their families.”

One of the push by trade unions as well as other stakeholders involved in the quest for fair migration governance led to the historic feat of signing the Global Compact on Migration (GCM) in Marrakech, Morocco in December 2018. Though, not a legally binding document on states, trade unions see the compact as a positive step towards multilateralism.

Experts agree that demand for labour, especially unskilled labour, has increased and millions of workers and their families will continue to travel to countries other than their own to find work. Hence, there will always be exploitations. Trade unions therefore will need to do more if they are to give voice to these vulnerable groups of workers.