04/2005: Manolo Abella

APRIL 2005

Manolo Abella
Former Director, International Migration Branch,
International Labour Office (ILO, Geneva)


ILO’s contribution to the development of international instruments and
standards on migration management and migrant integration policies


Ü Eurasylum Ltd: The International Labour Office estimates that approximately 96 million migrant workers, immigrants and members of their families are currently based in Europe (approximately 30 million), Africa (approximately 20 million), North America (approximately 18 million), Latin America (approximately 12 million), the Middle East (approximately 9 million) and Asia (approximately 7 million). The ILO also estimates that, from 1970 to 1990, the number of countries employing foreign labour has more than doubled, from 42 to 90. In order to help its member governments recognise the need to establish, modernise, and improve their laws, policies, practices and administrative structures for ensuring orderly migration, the ILO has developed a range of activities to forge an international consensus on how to manage migration. This has included a review of international labour standards; studies on the efficacy of state policies on migration and integration; studies on emigration pressures; a tripartite symposium on achieving equality; and the establishment of an informal network on foreign labour in Central and Eastern Europe. Could you briefly guide us through the main outputs achieved by these activities in your various regions of intervention over the last decade, emphasising, in particular, those capacity building activities implemented in Central and Eastern Europe and the way these have interacted with similar activities carried out by the European Commission and IOM?

Ü Manolo Abella: Very briefly, what I think has been achieved through these activities over the past decade can be summarised as follows: (i) alignment of the legislation of several countries with ILO Conventions on combating discrimination against immigrants, on admitting foreign workers through formal programmes, where none existed before, and on regulating recruitment by private intermediaries more effectively, by minimising fraud and abuses; (ii) incorporation of best international practices in the approach taken by some countries to implement their amnesty and regularisation programmes; (iii) encouraging more governments to consult with workers and employers groups when reforming migration policy, and to encourage more unions to extend their services to migrant workers; and (iv) giving labour administrators, union officials, and employers representatives opportunities to learn about how their counterparts in other countries and regions are dealing with the same migration-related issues and problems, what research reveals about past policy performances, and what lessons can be drawn from successful programmes.

The informal network on foreign labour which we launched in Central and Eastern Europe in 1996 also gave priority to assessing the problem of irregular migration and to help build personal bridges among those charged with resolving delicate bilateral migration issues. In many of the countries of the region, the political and economic changes that followed the collapse of the USSR, and the interest of several to join the EU, called for changes in policy and existing inter-state arrangements for managing migration. In Hungary, for example, we provided recommendations on ways to align labour migration policies and measures with those of the EU, particularly in view of future accession. It is not always easy to identify what exactly has resulted from our work. However, the ILO has provided many officials in the region with opportunities to discuss, informally, bilateral and multilateral issues with their counterparts in other countries, to learn about the way similar issues were being dealt with in other parts of Europe, and to consult with the ILO, the European Commission, OECD, IOM, ICMPD, and other organisations in their respective areas of competence.

Another example relates to the assistance we provided to the Russian Federation with regard to its several millions of long settled immigrants who were still without a regular status, notably those from other CIS countries. The ILO has been assisting the Russian authorities in drawing the necessary lessons from regularisation programmes implemented in other countries of Europe, including France, Spain, Portugal and Greece. The ILO also advised the Turkish authorities in the drafting of legislation on labour migration (given that Turkey has now also become a host country), and worked with IOM in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan on policies and programmes for supervising the emigration of domestic workers. Further examples of ILO’s relevant programmes in this area can be found in the Director General’s Report to the recent ILO European Regional Conference held in Budapest.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: Another major, on-going area of intervention for the International Labour Office includes the protection of the rights of migrant workers and the promotion of their integration into the countries of destination or the countries of origin. This entails such activities as advisory assistance to governments; campaigns to combat discrimination against migrants in employment; measures and activities to combat discrimination; campaigns against the trafficking of human beings; and research on working conditions of domestic workers. What are, in your view, the most salient obstacles to an effective implementation of migrant integration and rights protection policies today, how do these vary according to region and how would you assess ILO’s contribution to reducing such obstacles, including through normative instruments such as the Migration for Employment Convention and the Migrant Workers Convention?

Ü Manolo Abella: In my opinion, the most salient obstacles to rights protection and migrant integration are: (i) the reluctance of some countries to enter into formal commitments by way of bilateral agreements for organised migration of workers; (ii) the growth of the informal economy, which thrives on cheap labour made up, mostly, of smuggled or trafficked foreign workers; and (iii) racism and xenophobia. In the reconstruction period that followed the Second World War many states entered into agreements with countries from where they sourced their workers. These agreements were abandoned, effectively, in the mid-1970s, when the oil crisis triggered worldwide recession and when countries started to be faced with unemployment. The waves of refugee flows from troubled areas in the Balkans and Africa did not help convince governments to go back to bilaterally administered programmes on migration. There are of course interesting exceptions, such as Germany’s agreements with Poland, and other Central European countries, as a way of responding to anticipated migration pressures. This experience proved very positive, by enabling migrant workers to be properly covered and protected by labour laws, and by organising a policy of orderly return. But few such agreements have been witnessed elsewhere.

At the same time, there are growing sectors of the national economies that are proving impervious to state regulation, for a variety of reasons. These are generating a demand for migrant labour in view of the fact that native workers are unwilling to accept, and can afford to turn down, new jobs created. The US has about 7 million migrants without appropriate documentation. About half a million enter the EU every year. How can they survive without informal employment? The problem, of course, is not only due to a lack of legislation or regular status. In many developing countries, even the basic rights of regular migrant workers, who in theory are protected by labour laws, are frequently violated. We must recognise that there is no silver bullet to remedy such complex problems. The ILO is addressing the issues of rights protection on a broad front, from the creation of more jobs in source countries to convincing governments to examine their long-term needs for immigration, based on a careful analysis of their demographic and labour market situation. The ILO offers technical assistance for designing bilateral agreements, and advises on guest worker as well as permanent labour admission programmes.

Racism and xenophobia constitute a different set of problems, requiring political leadership and different policy instruments and approaches, such as local community and industry-level action, together with anti-discrimination boards. But it remains that uncontrolled immigration naturally generates pockets of impoverished migrant communities, who become easy targets for alienation and social stigmatisation.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: A major report, Towards a fair deal for migrant workers in the global economy, was published by the ILO in June 2004, which has now become a reference document for many policy formers and practitioners internationally. This report, which was produced on the basis of the replies received from 93 Member States to the International Labour Migration Survey, in addition to contributions from the other members of the Geneva Migration Group (UNHCR, UNHCHR, UNCTAD, UNODC, and IOM), the UN Population Division, the OECD, WHO, UNESCO and the European Commission, analyses some of the latest trends in migration and conditions of migrant workers, the state of law and practice, and the experience of Member States with the development of structures and policies for regulating migration and employment of migrant workers. Could you summarise some of the report’s key conclusions regarding the nature and effects of persisting gaps in existing migration management policies, and the possible best practices identified in some of the Member States? Also, could you comment on any follow up action adopted by your Member governments to the report’s proposed  Plan of action for the development of a coherent multilateral framework for the governance of international migration?

Ü Manolo Abella: The ILO report identified some of the major gaps and problems with existing policies and practices for managing labour migration. It showed, for example, that one major policy conundrum arises when foreign worker programmes are sold to the public with assurances that all foreign workers will only stay temporarily. Such programmes, clearly, are difficult to sustain when, more often than not, foreign workers decide to stay for longer periods of time and when employers have a vested interested in retaining their experienced workers. Rotation schemes have their limits. Another common problem is the failure to establish coherence in policy because of different, and at times conflicting, objectives being pursued at the same time. There are always competing interests in public policy, such as workers wanting to protect wage gains by stopping new immigration, and small enterprises not being able to survive without resorting to cheap labour. It is the task of political leaders to decide on the trade offs and to convince their electorates of the wisdom of choices made. This is important to prevent public policy from becoming hostage to extremist groups. Dealing with these issues surreptitiously, by relaxing entry through the back door (clandestine migration), can obviously bear serious consequences. It is important that migration policy questions are brought out in a transparent way and that key stakeholders such as trade unions and employers groups are consulted with a view to establishing broad support to any decision taken.

Another problem that can arise in this area is when policy is interpreted too rigidly, even when circumstances that have prompted a given policy may have already evolved. In many cases there is incongruence between administrative measures taken to implement a given policy and what the policy was intended to achieve. Processing applications for work permits, for example, may take such a long period of time that by the time approval is granted demand may no longer exist. The growth of irregular migration is symptomatic of major gaps in migration management, even if it is not always easy to perceive what the best course of action should be.

The US, for example, admits a million migrants a year and relies on a system of migration management that allows for considerable flexibility (for example through the possibility for yearly quota adjustments, and easy changes in migration status). Nonetheless, the US is home to a sizeable population of migrants in an irregular status. This suggests that irregular migration cannot be addressed simply by widening the entrance doors for regular migration. Income and wage differentials between poor and rich countries are simply too wide, e.g. $100 a year GDP per capita in Ethiopia vs $38,000 in Switzerland.

Our ILO study indicates that countries need to have interrelated but distinctive policies to deal with irregular migration. They need a combination of measures  enforcement, effective legal and administrative environments, and the provision of incentives. Employers sanctions do not solve the problem when, in most countries, they are not enforced. Some regularisation programmes have had the unintended effect of penalising employers who had registered their workers, and rewarding those who had not. Few countries, even the very rich ones, are investing in labour inspection in order to administer labour migration programmes effectively. Fiscal incentives and penalties are rarely used in migration management, even when such measures have proved useful in other areas of public policy.

The ILO is currently consulting its tripartite constituents and documenting good practices for inclusion in the guidelines to be provided in the non-binding multilateral framework for a rights-based approach to managing labour migration. A Tripartite Meeting of Experts will review these guidelines in mid-September 2005, before they are formally discussed at the ILO Governing Body in November 2005. The 20 or so elements specified in the ILO Resolution on a ‘Fair Deal for Migrant Workers in a Global Economy’, which called for an international Plan of Action and the development of a multilateral framework for managing migration, are also being discussed at various regional and national meetings organised by the ILO with international workers federations and employers organisations. They are also the themes of some of the ILO’s on-going technical cooperation activities in Asia and Africa.