Published: 18/12/2007

On December 18, 1990, the United Nations’ General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The Migrant Workers Convention entered into force in 2003, becoming a binding international treaty. It is considered one of the core human rights instruments. Yet to date it has been ratified by only 37 UN member states –none of them major receiving countries for migrants, and none of them members of the OECD, the club of wealthy countries who rely on cheap migrant labour.

The Migrant Workers Convention remains a well-kept secret, and for good reason. Countries which ratify the Convention undertake to defend the full range of human rights and freedoms which migrants enjoy under international law, including (Article 26) the right to freely join a trade union to defend their interests. Were the terms of the Convention respected, states would be required to act against the abuse and rampant exploitation which are the fate of many – indeed most – migrant workers.

The United Nations reckons that there are over 191 international migrants, half of whom are migrant workers. Global production – including the IUF sectors – rests on their backs. Agriculture, hotels and restaurants, and many branches of food processing would collapse without their contributions. Despite the existence of an international treaty affirming their rights, however, migrant workers are trafficked, discriminated against, constrained to work under hazardous and debilitating conditions, locked in isolated, unhealthy and dangerous living quarters, enslaved as domestic workers, jailed and periodically interned in mass detention centers before being forcibly repatriated.

In some of the richest countries of the world, agricultural workers, who are overwhelmingly migrants, remain entirely outside the legal framework of industrial relations and social security. In the United States, the private equity owners of the fast food chain Burger King  – the world’s second largest restaurant chain – are seeking to wreck an agreement which would have seen growers pay an extra one US cent for every basket of tomatoes picked by 20,000 Florida migrant farmworkers. These workers, already working for poverty wages, have just seen their pay cut by 40 percent.

The treatment of migrant workers is a basic indicator of the application and enforcement of human rights standards by each and every state. For unions internationally, the level of union organization of the migrant workforce should be regarded as a key indicator of the labour movement’s overall health, bargaining strength and capacity for mobilization.

In December 2000, the United Nations declared December 18 to be International Migrants Day. Unions should celebrate this day by demanding that their governments finally ratify the Convention, but they need not wait for ratification to take action. Unions in many parts of the world are increasingly active in organizing migrants, conscious that their own future depends in large measure on their success in organizing all workers, immigrant or native born, documented or undocumented.

In Korea, the national center KCTU has supported the Migrants Trade Union in its struggle for rights and legal recognition. Three of that union’s leaders have just been forcibly deported. The T&G section of United in the UK has launched a national mobilization for equality of treatment for agency and temporary workers in the meat industry, most of whom are migrants. Like the thousands of construction workers in Dubai who recently organized repeated mass strikes in reaction to degrading and inhuman conditions, migrants have led or participated actively in some of the most important labour struggles of recent years. Unions internationally can celebrate December 18, International Migrants Day, by supporting these struggles and by intensifying their efforts to organize the growing numbers of migrant workers in their home countries. Our common future depends on it.