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More International Cooperation Needed To Regain Control Over Labour Migration

03 Apr 2017
By Dr Giovanni Di Lieto
Migrant worker in Myamar Photo Credit: Solidarity Centre (Flickr) Creative Commons

The inescapable economic reality of globalisation is driving unprecedented crossborder labour flows. Australia must promote better global labour migration governance lest it cede sovereignty to transnational criminal organisations.

Across the world, millions of people are on the move doing jobs ranging from menial labour to high-tech activities. The number of migrants crossing borders in search of employment and human security is expected to increase rapidly in the coming decades due to the failure of globalised markets to provide an adequate match between local labour opportunities and socioeconomic needs. The question is no longer whether to have migrant workers but rather how to manage labour mobility effectively to harness its socioeconomic impact.

Policies regarding migrant labour are not determined solely at the national level. International trade agreements can have significant effects on migration flows, as labour standards provisions are increasingly being included in economic partnerships, such as the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Such inclusions are promoted on the grounds that a balanced approach to labour migration management is an essential element of good governance, signifying to traders and investors that a certain country is an acceptable place to do business in the long term. Accordingly, preventing trading partners from ignoring labour regulation is regarded to be in the interest of stimulating and not distorting international trade.

At the multilateral level, the United Nations does not govern migration through a coherent institutional apparatus; rather, several UN agencies have mandates to deal with migration only in subordinate relation to other issues of rights protection, such as human rights at large (OHCHR), labour rights (ILO), children’s rights (UNICEF), refugees’ rights (UNHCR) and economic and social affairs (UN-DESA).

The lack of binding UN-based frameworks leaves governments substantially free to pursue their own migration policies on a unilateral basis. This approach has led to disharmonic migration governance not only globally, but also nationally and regionally. Over the past decades, governments have been inclined to develop informal processes, notably the Global Forum on Migration and Development. Furthermore, despite its title, the International Organization for Migration is far from being the global agency of migration governance, due to the absence of a comprehensive mandate on migration issues, missing a constitutional norm or specific policy on the legal protection of migrants.

Behind this legal and institutional vacuum is the lack of a common understanding between migrant-sending and migrant-receiving countries of the socioeconomic issues at stake. This situation intersects with political issues around perceived security interests, which increasingly trigger populist anti-immigrant discourse across the globe.

Countries’ reluctance to strengthen migration governance is based on the misconception that it will limit their sovereignty. In fact, domestic control over migration would be stronger if coordination and cooperation between governments improved. This reasoning acknowledges that migration is increasingly globalised and involves a broad range of non-state actors and stakeholders.

This phenomenon calls for robust global migration governance in response to what is now a highly unregulated system wherein sovereignty is ultimately curtailed by criminal organisations involved in people smuggling, unscrupulous recruitment and unauthorised work. The unmet demand for legal migration channels, particularly at the low-skilled level, generates more irregular border crossings, adding to already unprecedented pressures on border and customs administrations across the world.

Few migrants follow official procedures in moving from one country to another, but instead rely upon private agencies or their own networks. This leaves governments with even less power to dictate the conditions under which migration takes place.

These socioeconomic dynamics show that governments have lost much of the little sovereign control over migration they had in the pre-globalisation era. Virtually all individuals and organisations involved in the migration process continue to defy national policies on admissions, working rights and terms of stay. Governments may win many battles against unauthorised migration, but they are losing the war for control over who works in their jurisdictions.

Notwithstanding restrictive immigration policies at the national level, the transnational movement of labour mainly responds to economic stimuli provided by global markets. The transnational labour supply chain veers between loopholes and blind spots of applicable legal frameworks and trade liberalisation policies to respond to rapid changes in global labour demands.

For this reason, as I argue in my recent book on migrant labour law in free markets, besides adding comprehensive labour provisions to free trade agreements, Australia should promote an international body to deal with the issue of labour migration. This new body would fill the missing link in the international economic law area, providing a labour equivalent to the World Trade Organization.

At a time when Australia’s border sovereignty is a sensitive political issue, assuming leadership in the global migration governance discourse should be framed and justified as a way to reclaim Australia’s sovereignty, rather than cede it.

Dr Giovanni Di Lieto is an Australian Institute of International Affairs Victoria council member. He lectures international trade law at Monash University. His book, Migrant Labour Law: Unfolding Justice at Work for Migrants, was awarded the inaugural Holt Prize for best legal manuscript by The Federation Press. This article is an edited extract from his submission to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s forthcoming foreign policy white paper.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.

The photo is of a migrant worker in Burma. Photo credit: Solidarity Center/Jeanne Hallacy