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Giving a voice to undocumented migrants

Giving a voice to undocumented migrants

Brussels,15 June 2004 (ICFTU OnLine): The unions want to give a voice to undocumented migrant workers, who are the first victims of human trafficking, unscrupulous employers and restrictive immigration policies, says the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which represents most of the world's national trade union centres.

To coincide with the tripartite annual conference (unions, employers, governments) of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which is currently discussing the problems associated with migration, ICFTU is publishing a new 12-page briefing.

"We want to be treated like human beings, not animals", said one undocumented Moroccan worker, who went to southern Spain to pick fruit and many of whose compatriots sleep under plastic sheeting. "Illegal migration is never the first choice of migrant workers, who earn a salary that is just enough to survive on, and work under conditions of extreme exploitation", stressed Raquel Gonzalez, from the International Federation of Building and Woodworkers (IFBWW), which maintains that border checks and the repatriation of undocumented migrants "often aggravate the situation".

Restrictive immigration policies have not succeeded in curbing the influx of illegal migrants; in fact they have exacerbated it by indirectly encouraging human trafficking. This in turn has not only triggered the exploitation of migrant workers, who endure miserable working conditions, but also exerted downward pressure on the salaries and working conditions of workers who are nationals of the country in question. In addition, undocumented migrants are all the more likely to find themselves in a vulnerable position if they are women - and more and more women are migrating.

Immigration policies ought to enable undocumented migrants to gain legal status and provide powerful mechanisms for implementing the policies in question (namely via worksite inspections and penalties imposed on employers who abuse the system) and for protecting them against repatriation without any guarantees. In addition to the fundamental rights of migrant workers, which apply to all workers, special attention ought to be paid to the agreements on social security and other mechanisms that facilitate the return and free movement of migrants, recommends the ICFTU, which calls for the healthy management of migration in an attempt to avoid a 'brain drain' and prevent a widening of the gap between North and South (see the previous briefing ).

On the ground, the unions are endeavouring to give a voice to undocumented migrants, many of whom work in the agriculture, construction and transport sectors (see briefing for details). The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), for example, is calling for the laws that punish companies (especially airlines) which carry passengers without documentation to be repealed. The British Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) is calling for a requirement that all providers of labour (so-called 'gangmasters') should have a permit, the argument being that this will help to combat abusive migrant recruitment practices. In South Korea, for several months the KCTU has been occupying the cathedral in Seoul, demanding that an end be put to the practice of expelling undocumented migrants. In the United States, in 2003 the AFL-CIO took part in 'Freedom Ride' to raise public awareness of the issue. The ICFTU also adopted an action plan in 2001 on "Fighting racism and xenophobia " targeting undocumented migrants in particular.

The ICFTU believes that the ILO has a key role to play in improving the rights of migrants, especially those without documentation, because "work is not a commodity", as the ILO stated in the 1944 Philadelphia Declaration. The unions are especially concerned that too few countries have ratified the two ILO Conventions on migrant workers (nos. 97 and 143), including Convention 143 which specifically protects undocumented migrants. Moreover, the unions insist that migrant workers, including those without documentation, may not be deprived of their freedom of association.

The ICFTU represents 151 million workers in 233 affiliated organisations in 152 countries and territories. ICFTU is also a member of Global Unions:

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