The Rights of Migrant Workers

This address was made by Anwar Fazal at the inaugural International Day of Solidarity With Migrant Workers and Their Families, held at the office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Manila, Philippines on 18 December 1997.

I have some very rapid appraisal ideas about civilised societies and one of the indicators I use is how societies treat visitors and foreigners generally and especially those who take up economic activities.

We test their local host's pride, generosity and their humanity.

Today, if we look at how migrant workers and their families are treated, we often see the real and worst sides of people and institutions.

It took 11 years and one day from the time the General Assembly adopted a resolutions entitled “Measures to Improve the Situation and Ensure the Human Rights and Dignity of Migrant Workers” on 17 December 1979 to the time on 18 December 1990 when it adopted the “International Convention on the Protection of Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families”.

It was an ingenious convention reaffirming and packaging existing standards of human rights in other international instruments while incorporating ideas unique to the context of migrant workers.

Perhaps because it was so thorough and bold that so few countries have ratified it and there seems little enthusiasm globally.

A group of us have decided to change that or at least try to.

Margaret Mead, the great social anthropologist, once said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”.

A new network has been formed. It is called the Asian Partnership in International Migration (APIM). A core activity was decided that we get the world to pay attention to the issues of migrant workers. We agreed that December 18 be celebrated world wide as the International Day of Solidarity with Migrant Workers and their Families.

Today, is the inaugural launch of that day. Today marks a historical landmark for a popular campaign for global solidarity with migrant workers and to get the Convention in place firmly all over the world.

In doing so, we address five particular challenges:

First, that we are addressing a cluster of human rights issues. No human being should be treated the way many migrants are. A regime of criminality is emerging and taking root. We need to ask more loudly “what are rights and what are wrongs?”

Secondly, we are addressing the reality of a cluster of issues of values, family and other community relationship, sadly, much disintegration and many collapses. We need to ask 'what lives, what dies?”

Thirdly, we have a range of economic issues. Billions of dollars are being remitted monthly. Local economies are transformed, even distorted. We need to ask “what kind of economies” are breeding and feeding on this issue. We need to ask,who gets rich, who gets poorer?”

Fourthly, we have the challenge of environmental and health issues, of the transmission of old diseases and new ones, (e.g. sudden death syndrome). We need to ask, “who lives, who dies?”

Fifthly, we have the challenge of partnership - these issues needs the combined humanity and concerted action of a whole range of stakeholders including, governments, researchers, civil society, UN Agencies and employers. We need to ask, who is responsible, who is irresponsible?

What Can We Do?

We must use all the power of popular mobilisation, bringing together diverse interests and energies. We must be prepared to be in for the long haul.

The “Day” provides with it a unifying and creative opportunity to share and build on the stated commitment of the global institutions and to share the competence of many actors in government, business and civil society.

The “Day” provides for us a platform for specific “do-able” actions.

The “Day” reminds us of the core universal values about dignity, human rights, fairness and justice.

In a world dominated by greed and criminality, a world that seems to thrive on disorder and dislocation, a world that breeds violence and racism, developing universal standards of humanity and justice and meeting human needs are ever more essential.

In UNDP, we call this kind of new world order, “Sustainable Human Development”. Through this Day of Solidarity and by being fair to workers and families everywhere, we hope to further our agenda of hope and action.

UNDP through its initiative, Asia Pacific 2000 is committed to help all those who want to take up the issues of migrant workers.

Thank you

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