Rights and justice for migrant and all workers

Rights and justice for migrant and all workers

10 January 2019 21:16

This is the second of a series of blog pieces written by Ambet Yuson, General Secretary of BWI. This piece focuses on rights for migrant workers.

Migration is a critical issue for BWI, not only because of the large number of migrant workers in our ranks and our sectors, but also because the situation of migrant workers and refugees is a battleground, the front lines, in fact, in the struggle for human rights and social justice. The fact that this has become a major political issue in many countries has further complicated migrant discussions and issues. But, attacks on migrants are also being used to divide workers and to undermine democracy. 

The BWI priority on migration has been and remains the full respect for human rights, especially workers’ and trade union rights. That position is a defence of migrant workers, but also of non-migrant workers. It also sees migration as part of a larger whole; which includes creating conditions in the world where workers are no longer forced to leave their homelands, whether as refugees or migrants. But whether workers remain in their homelands or have to leave them, they should not be divided into free and unfree workers or against each other.

BWI insists that migrant workers should have the same rights as other workers. They should be covered by the same labour legislation, have employment contracts, be able to freely change employment, organise in trade unions and become active trade unionists and have the right to collective bargaining. In other words, they should never be excluded from the rights and social protection frameworks of a host country. 

Even when, on paper, rights of migrant workers are protected, in practice, the situation is often much different. Migrant workers are nearly always, in fact, vulnerable. If they are, for example, on fixed term, temporary contracts or involved in so called circular migration schemes, they may, effectively lose their rights, including their trade union rights. In other words, rights need to be fully respected and exercisable to be real. 

In the Gulf States and some other countries, workforces in construction are entirely populated by migrant workers. And in these countries, migrant workers face enormous challenges and are prone to exploitation and discrimination.   However, there has been considerable progress in Qatar, where BWI has concentrated its efforts related to the 2020 World Cup. 

We are hopeful that legislation and practices will be in full conformity with ILO labour standards within the next few years. That did not just happen. It has been a combination of years of campaigning and, when it became possible, of productive engagement. We are hoping that improvements serve as a model for other Gulf countries where large numbers of migrant construction workers will be engaged for the foreseeable future. 

In BWI, we are doing everything that we can to influence the UN, ILO, the IOM, and others to build a system of global governance of migration that will guarantee rights and help to develop orderly relationships and processes. 

This week, from 10-11 December in Marrakesh, Morocco, the UN Member States will adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM).   The BWI along with other Global Unions have been actively engaged in the negotiations of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) which will be adopted 10-11 December in Marrakesh, Morocco.  

Although the GCM is a non-binding document it is a historic document. For the first time, Member States have agreed to a multilateral framework of cooperation for the global governance of migration.

The BWI along with other Global Unions followed the entire process very closely, advocating for a Global Compact that promotes decent work, and guarantees ILO fundamental principles and rights at work to all migrant workers, regardless of migration status. 

We are also working on the ground with migrant workers as well as with member organisations on organising and mobilisation

When migrant and non-migrant workers are on jobsites together and are active in their trade unions together, they are not paralysed with fear of each other. Rather, they see each other as fellow workers and human beings. Normal human relations and acceptance, respect and tolerance, in today’s heavily politicised and distorted discussions are fundamental to shifting the debate and improving our societies. As the writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley wrote, “The propagandist's purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.” 

The changing political climate makes the lives of migrant workers and trade unions more problematic. That means that action against xenophobia, hatred, and bigotry requires mobilisation far beyond the workplace and our ranks.  

The growth of the Extreme Right in Europe, in the United States, in Brazil, and elsewhere is built on a foundation of disinformation and fear. Much of their focus is on migration. Surveys show that the fear is greatest in towns and villages where there are few or no migrants. In other words, it is “fabricated” fear of the unknown. 

This generation and exploitation of fear by authoritarian forces has been facilitated by Facebook and other social networking media. In some cases, it has led to violence and harassment against migrants and refugees, including children. 

As we have seen in a number of countries including the United States, Hungary, and Austria, fanning the flames of hatred by those holding political office, creates dangerous, irrational crops of hatred to be harvested in elections. Baseless, deceptive attacks on migrants rapidly opened the doors to the revival of other dark forces of history, including White Supremacy and anti-Semitism. Fortunately, these vile strategies do not always succeed in focusing anger and discontent on the weak rather than on the powerful. 

The trade union movement, due to its diverse membership, its values, its traditions of solidarity and democracy, and its deep roots in the community, can contribute to restoring reason to the public debate on migration. That discussion needs to be based on real challenges of real people. 

Speech and the written word should be used to facilitate communication rather than block it. Words can, after all, do not have to be weapons. They can also be instruments of understanding and peace.