Migrant workers: Doing the dirty work for others

Published on Monday, 15 April 2013

Published by Bart Edes on Monday, 15 April 2013

Millions of workers from developing Asia and the Pacific venture to richer economies in the region, the Middle East, and beyond to fill gaps in the labor market. They take on menial jobs that require little schooling and no formal qualifications. These low-skilled migrants clean clothes, homes, offices, and streets; construct buildings; staff fishing vessels; tend to the children of white collar professionals; pick crops; wash dishes; stock shelves; and carry heavy loads. Migrant workers perform dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs that people in their host country don't wish to do.

Social protection systems in developing Asia and the Pacific are for the most part weak. Unless someone is working for the state or a major private company, chances are that law and practice do not provide them with benefits like days off, insurance against job loss, sick leave, limits to work hours, a minimum wage, and a pension plan. Low-skilled migrant workers receive even fewer job “perks”, with many working in the informal sector.

Although migrant workers are vital to the economies in which they toil, and greatly improve the quality of life for many around them, they commonly receive second-class treatment - or worse. There are countless reports of migrant workers fleeced by job brokers, abused by employers, harassed by the police, and subjected to extortion by crooked bureaucrats. 

Migrant workers risk mistreatment in order to provide for their loved ones back home. Although their wages are modest by the standards of the economies in which they work, migrants earn large sums of hard currency for their homelands. In total, migrants (at all skill levels) remit around half a trillion dollars each year to developing countries – about three times the total provided by major donors through official development assistance. 

While some governments are moving to improve the difficult conditions of low-skilled migrant workers, much more remains to be done to ensure that decent employment with basic social protection becomes the norm. Concrete actions that would improve migrant conditions include regularizing their legal status, providing basic healthcare, lowering remittance costs through greater competition and use of modern technologies, and making pensions portable across borders.

Low-skilled migrants contribute hugely to the economies in which they work, as well as to their countries of origin. They deserve greater respect and much better treatment. 

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