Labor Migration: The Nexus of Foreign Policy and the Free Market

Barbara Shailor serves as Special Representative for International Labor Affairs.

Since 2000, the international community has set aside December 18 to recognize the contributions of migrants to our communities. Please join me on this special day in expressing our support for these individuals.

Of the estimated 214 million migrants around the world, the International Labor Organization estimates 100 million are migrant workers. This population has grown out of globalization and, at the same time, contributes to it. Migrant workers leave their home societies in search of opportunities; abroad, they build bridges and roads, teach in schools and universities, and provide care in hospitals and in homes. They fill crucial gaps in the labor market, and contribute to two economies: by spending in the destination society, and sending money to their society of origin. However, migrant workers sometimes find themselves isolated and in locations where labor laws and other protections do not extend to them. In times of economic hardship, they are especially vulnerable to discrimination, precarious employment, and job loss.

Labor migration rests at the nexus of foreign policy and the free market. When countries adopt policies to manage migration to meet the needs of the market, they benefit from both the economic activity generated by the migrants as well as the entrepreneurial drive and new skills that migrants bring. In the last century, for example, over 49 million migrants to the United States made enormous contributions to our country’s cultural diversity and economic growth and development. In return, destination countries must strive to protect the rights of migrants, including migrant workers, whether they are residents or foreign nationals, in high- or low-skilled jobs, in the formal or informal sector. Labor-related rights in particular include the right to acceptable conditions of work, to organize and negotiate with employers, to be free from discrimination and to be safe from the threat of forced or child labor.

We seek to use labor diplomacy, and our labor officers, to collaborate with key stakeholders in foreign governments and civil society to raise work and living standards for migrant workers. We also work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to assist and empower migrant labor activists; to encourage governments to adopt and maintain laws that respect these fundamental labor rights for all workers, including migrants; and to prevent labor violations, including child and forced labor, through effective monitoring at multiple levels in the supply chain.

Though today I have focused on migrant workers in particular, the State Department does important work year-round to encourage orderly, humane and effective management of migration. Migration has also played a critical role in our nation’s history. Of more than 200 million people who are outside the country of their birth today, one in five resides in the United States. Immigrants have made enormous contributions to the cultural diversity and economic growth and development of the United States. The benefits to our society of traditionally generous levels of immigration have been enormous.

We support the work of our colleagues in the department, in particular, the Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration, and the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, as they advocate for policies that respect the dignity and human rights of all migrants, including but not limited to asylum seekers, stateless persons, victims of human trafficking, stranded migrants, and unaccompanied minors. Therefore, I encourage you all to take the opportunity of International Migrants Day to promote broad respect for tolerance, diversity, economic inclusion, and human rights.

Cross-posted from DipNote.

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