The world appears to be on the move. The number of international migrants, defined by the UN as persons outside their country of birth at least a year, more than doubled between 1980 and 2010, from 103 million to 220 million. The number of international migrants was 232 million in 2013 or 3.2 percent of world residents, and is projected to rise faster than the global population, doubling to over 400 million in 2050, while the global population increases 40 percent to 9.6 billion.
Manolo Abella, former Director of the International Migration Program of the ILO, emphasized three major points in two days of talks. First, Asia is “different” in labor migration from Europe and North America. Second, the Gulf oil-exporting countries that were largely built by migrant workers and now rely on migrant workers to provide services to citizens represent a unique migrant labor situation whose future is uncertain. Third, ILO conventions aim to protect local workers from “unfair” competition by ensuring that migrant workers are treated the same as local workers.
Over 60 percent of international migrants are in what the UN defines as developed regions, the 30+ countries that had 136 million migrants in 2013, making migrants 11 percent of their 1.2 billion residents. There were 96 million migrants in the 170 poorer developing countries, making migrants 1.6 percent of their six billion residents. About 48 percent of the world's migrants are women, and 35 million or 15 percent are under 20. The migrant stock included 16 million refugees and 20 million irregular migrants, including 11 million in the US.
Europe had 72 million migrants in 2013, followed by 71 million in Asia. Half of international migrants live in 10 countries, including a quarter in the US, which had 46 million migrants in 2013, followed by Russia with 11 million; Germany 10 million; Saudi Arabia, 9.1 million; UAE 7.8 million; UK, 7.8 million; and France, Canada, Australia and Spain, about seven million each.
Asia is home to 60 percent of the world's people but only 30 percent of the world’s international migrants. Asian countries represent migration extremes. Abella explained that Japan attracted rural-urban internal migrants to fill jobs in factories and on construction sites during its first economic boom between 1965 and 1970, and tolerated unauthorized foreigners during the second boom between 1986 and 1991. Japan, which remains largely opposed to large-scale low-skill guest workers, tolerates some as trainees and foreign students who work part time while they study, but also encourages Japanese firms to move manufacturing operations that employ low-skill workers abroad to countries with lower wages such as China, so that less than two percent of workers in Japan are foreigners.
Singapore took a different path to filling low-skill jobs as the country became richer. During the 1960s, the government invested heavily in education so that foreign and local investors would create factory jobs for local workers. This educated workforce enabled Singapore to move up the value chain, and the government allowed employers to recruit guest workers from nearby countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia to fill lower level jobs shunned by Singaporeans. Today, a third of the 3.3 million workers in Singapore are migrants, and they fill both high- and low-level jobs. The Singapore government’s policy of welcome-the-skilled, rotate the low-skilled, and minimize irregular migration is one that many countries would like to embrace, but that most countries cannot implement successfully.
The Gulf Cooperation Countries were thinly settled tribal societies when the 1973 Yom Kippur war resulted in an OPEC oil embargo that raised the price of oil, and the price rose again after the Iranian revolution in 1979. The influx of oil money prompted governments to build cities and infrastructure for their suddenly wealthy societies. The multinationals who did the building recruited Arab-speaking workers from nearby poorer countries, including Egypt and Yemen.
However, fears of pan-Arab unity that could see Egypt and other poorer Arab countries ask the GCC countries to share their oil wealth prompted GCC governments to ask the multinational firms to shift away from Arab workers, and they did. South Asians and Southeast Asian workers arrived without their families, and they proved less a threat and more willing to work for wages that are often $200 to $300 a month.
Today, most private-sector workers in GCC countries are migrants, often 90 percent or more, and most are Asians rather than Arabs. However, the labor-and-migration outlook is clouded by large numbers of native youth seeking jobs, but reluctant to accept private-sector jobs where wages have been depressed by the availability of migrants. Some GCC governments, notably Saudi Arabia, tried to enforce nationalization laws that make some private-sector jobs off limits to migrant workers and force employers to hire native workers.
The ILO enacted two major migrant worker conventions, Number 97 in 1949 and Number 143 in 1975. The first was approved in the aftermath of the reshuffling of peoples in postwar Europe, when some were uncertain whether new residents of new countries would be temporary or permanent residents. Convention 97 stressed the importance of cooperation between governments, and with employers and unions, to ensure that migrant workers were treated equally where they lived and worked.
Convention 143 was enacted after European countries that had recruited guest workers for over a decade wanted to achieve two somewhat contradictory goals, reduce irregular migration while integrating guest workers and their families who had settled. Equal treatment argued for allowing migrant workers and their families to become citizens, and the convention’s call for sanctions on employers who hired unauthorized workers aimed to discourage irregular migration.
Some migrant-sending countries, led by Mexico, did not like the emphasis in Convention 143 on reducing irregular migration. Stymied at the ILO in the quest for a convention that would grant rights to irregular migrant workers, they turned to the UN, which approved the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in 1990. The 1990 UN Convention reinforces ILO conventions that stress equal rights for migrants and goes beyond them to also call for human rights for irregular workers.