Published: 17/06/2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the corporate food system’s reliance on extended, fragile chains of migrant labour. But for many governments and international agencies like the United Nations’ FAO and WHO, the harsh, even life-threatening conditions under which migrants work is a crisis of mobility rather than a consequence of exploitation underpinned by the systematic denial of fundamental rights.

From this point of view, the limited task facing governments in the coronavirus emergency is to ensure a sufficient supply of workers to keep supermarket shelves fully stocked, rather than to protect worker and public health by protecting rights. The agenda is driven by the labour requirements of wealthy countries who are also major food exporters, including exports to the countries from which agrifood companies are vacuuming mobile workers. Agriculture in Western Europe, for example, relies heavily on migrant labour from Eastern Europe, where labour-exporting countries in turn rely on migrants from further afield. But the situation of workers in these countries – their needs, their rights and the forces which drive them to migrate – are largely ignored. The chains of exploitation simply vanish, together with the absence of rights and the universal failure to protect them.

In some countries, unions have pushed hard for governments to take action to protect migrant workers’ rights. These efforts can be reinforced by an important international human rights instrument: the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families.

The United Nations’ General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in 1990. The Migrant Workers Convention entered into force in 2003, becoming a binding international treaty. It is considered one of the core human rights instruments, and as such establishes a review mechanism. Yet to date it has been ratified by only 55 UN member states – none of them wealthy receiving countries for migrants. (CLICK HERE for the list of ratifying countries)

There is a simple explanation for the limited number of ratifications. 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 most migrant workers.

Two articles are particularly relevant in the present crisis. Article 25 establishes the principle of equality of treatment concerning remuneration and other conditions of employment including overtime, working hours, weekly rest, paid holidays, safety, health and termination of employment. Article 28 guarantees equality of access to medical treatment, stating that “Migrant workers and members of their families shall have the right to receive any medical care that is urgently required for the preservation of their life or the avoidance of irreparable harm to their health on the basis of equality of treatment with nationals of the State concerned. Such emergency medical care shall not be refused them by reason of any irregularity with regard to stay or employment.”

The Convention creates no new rights in international law, but brings together recognized rights set out in earlier instruments and applies them to the situation of migrant workers, now conservatively estimated to be some 165 million women and men around the world, many of them working in the IUF sectors. The ILO played a strong role in drafting it.

Countries which ratify the Migrant Workers Convention are obliged to bring domestic law into compliance with their treaty obligations. Wider ratification would facilitate action to protect migrant workers in the current crisis and beyond. It’s time for unions to actively campaign for ratification by their countries of the International Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families.