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1 Jun 2023

ILO report finds migrant workers face 'legal and practical' barriers to realising their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining

The International Labour Organization has released a report on migrant workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining (FACB), with a particular focus on formal trade unions. The report includes an analysis of the ILO’s 2021 FACB Trade Union Survey.

The report emphasises the importance of protecting migrant workers' rights to FACB, highlighting how the right to FACB enables the realisation of other labour rights, including access to suitable and safe working conditions, fair wages, and social protection. However, the report finds legal and practical barriers prohibit migrant workers from realising their FACB rights.

The right to FACB for migrant workers is articulated in international law. The report discusses a number of ILO conventions and standards, alongside the ILO constitution and the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles & Rights at Work, that underline the right to FACB for all workers. Further, a number of standards and conventions specifically focus on migrant workers’ FACB rights, such as the Migration for Employment Convention.

The report finds national legal barriers are the most common obstacle migrant workers face in accessing their FACB rights, as reported by more than 70% of trade union confederation respondents. The most significant legal barriers are:

  • Restrictions on foreigners establishing trade unions or workers’ organisations;
  • Use of work permits to limit migrant workers’ rights;
  • And restrictions on undocumented workers enjoying any FACB rights.

However, even where legal barriers are not present, other obstacles remain. This includes the temporary nature of migrants’ stay in the destination country;; the effects of long working hours and a lack of days off; the isolation of workplaces; language barriers; fear of anti-union reprisals by employers; and discrimination or anti-migrant attitudes. The report also calls for targeted organising strategies for women migrants, who are often concentrated in sectors with greater risk to labour exploitation.

Despite these barriers, the report emphasises good practices at both national and regional levels. For example, this includes the removal of legislative prohibitions on migrants joining trade unions; and trade unions initiatives to tackle the practical barriers migrant workers face in realising their FACB rights, such as training programmes, awareness campaigns, and cross-border collaboration.

The report offers recommendations for governments, employers, and trade unions. For example, among other solutions, the report suggests governments should create an enabling environment for migrant workers to exercise their FACB rights, such as through consultation with social partners. Recommendations for employers include:

  • Refrain from engaging in threatening practices that discourage migrant workers from exercising their FACB rights.
  • Share information with migrant workers about their labour rights and terms and conditions of employment in a language they understand.
  • Recognize and engage with independent and representative trade unions formed in the workplace.
  • Engage in social dialogue to learn more about the challenges migrant workers face.
  • Advocate for the effective implementation of bilateral labour migration agreements to protect migrant workers.
  • Encourage employers in remote sectors to join employers’ organisations.