Labour Migration Policy as a Public Policy and IOM’s Operational Approaches

25. janvāris, 2006


Dr. Thomas Lothar Weiss

Prezentācija konferencē "Vai Latvija iet Īrijas pēdās: darbaspēka migrācija" 2006. gada 20. janvārī

Minister Pabriks, Minister Ahern, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Friends,

Having both the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ireland as well as so many participants from the private sector, academia, the media and the general public join us today is illustrative of the importance and relevance of our topic. I would like to thank Minister Pabriks for associating the International Organization for Migration to this event.

Labour migration, as one of the most outstanding features of international migration, is no doubt a burning issues in these early years of the 21st century.

And indeed, much is at stake: labour migration is a natural response to widening demographic and economic differentials, the challenge and opportunity is to manage the already occurring massive labour migration in a manner that reduces these differences to the benefit of all. Into this respect, the experiences and lessons learned from Ireland and Latvia are significant.

In my short presentation, I propose to sketch the importance of labour migration from a public policy point of view – and migration management is nothing more and nothing less than an instrument of public policy – and outline the role my Organization is playing in the management of labour migration in the region and beyond.

Let me start with a figure: approximately 65 million migrant workers, accompanied by as many dependents, are working in a State other than their own. This is a huge number if one considers that there are some 200 millions migrants worldwide[1].

Over the last 20 years or so, we have seen a considerable increase in the number of countries experiencing labour migration and a growing tendency for many countries to be both countries of origin and destination.

A number of factors suggest that labour migration will be an increasingly important aspect of globalization, posing new challenges and opportunities for policy makers in terms of the management of migratory flows which require a careful analysis of its costs and benefits.

For many people, the rights provided under international law for an individual to leave and return to his or her country of origin in order to work abroad may be the only basis for a personal livelihood strategy.

The decision to migrate for economic reasons can have both positive and negative consequences.

Migrants may secure a better income, have access to better social services, and be able to provide a better education for their children or benefit from the enrichment of becoming a member of a transnational community at ease in different cultures.

However, migration may also cause family disruption when family members have to stay behind, and may involve sacrificing a familiar lifestyle and becoming a stranger in a new country.

Labour migration policies differ from other migration policies directed at migration flows that may also have an impact on labour markets, for example refugee and family reunification, in the sense that they do not have humanitarian objectives but apply economic criteria with a view to responding to labour market needs.

Governments at all points on the migration spectrum increasingly recognize the potential of regulatory mechanisms to maximize the positive impact of labour migration. Many sending and receiving countries are developing their regulatory capacities to manage labour mobility by considering the interests of all players, i.e. governments, societies, and the migrants.

While demand for labour in receiving countries largely determines overall patterns of migration, sending states have adopted various approaches to foreign employment ranging from laissez faire to extensive involvement in the process. The rationale for state intervention and adoption of a foreign employment policy is usually to manage recruitment activities, to ensure that the rights and interests of migrant workers are respected, and to maximize the benefits for the economy from labour migration.

Labour migration may have enormous potential for countries at both ends of the migration spectrum.

For countries of origin, in addition to the possibility to provide relief from unemployment and absorbing an increase in the labour force, it can provide a form of development support, especially through remittances, transfer of know-how, and creation of business and trade networks.

For receiving countries, immigration can alleviate labour scarcity, facilitate occupational mobility, and add to the human capital stock of the receiving countries. In the context of demographic changes, labour migration can help receiving countries to maintain workforce levels.

Immigration is one of a number of mechanisms available to policy makers to respond to potential labour shortages. The decision to recruit migrant workers is usually a response to an assessment that the resident labour reserve is insufficient, lacking in skills, or simply not easy to mobilize to meet labour demand.

Additional responses to potential labour shortages include: increasing the participation in the labour market of specific group, including women and immigrants; shifting the retirement age; and – finally – encouraging geographic mobility.

At the end, labour migration is a transnational process, and inter-state cooperation is essential for managing it. The success of the migratory experience will depend partly on the migrant’s capacity to face the challenge of his or her new situation, but most of what the labour migrant will be able to achieve will depend on the approaches taken in the management of labour migration by both sending and receiving countries.

Inter-state cooperation in managing labour migration is manifested at three levels: bilateral, regional and multilateral.

Bilateral labour agreements are the most common mechanism used to regulate inter-state labour migration. They formalize each side’s commitment to ensure that migration takes place in accordance with agreed principles and procedures[2].

Within the framework of regional economic integration processes, migration policy is sometimes linked to economic and trade policy. Depending on the level of economic integration, labour related movements are more or less facilitated to enhance economic convergence, discourage irregular migration, and regulate migration flows within the region. The difficulties in establishing a regional policy usually arises from the social and economic differences between countries, with countries with strong economies fearing any measures that could lead to an increase of labour migration flows.

At the multilateral level, there is no global agreement or convention in place to manage labour migration flows. However, a limited number of instruments cover specific aspects of cross-border mobility for economic purposes. The supply of services entailing temporary migration of persons, otherwise referred to as MODE 4, is one of the four ways of trading a service under GATS. Many developing countries would like to gain significant liberalization of the movement of natural persons, especially toward low-skilled workers for which they have a greater comparative advantage due to the abundance in their labour force. However, the tendency of developed countries is to prefer to limit their multilateral commitments to upper categories such as intra-company tranferees, business visitors, and highly qualified migrants.

Efforts by the international community to develop norms on labour migration through legally binding conventions have had limited success:

The 2 ILO General Conventions on Migrant Labour have each been ratified by very few states only[3]. The UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrants Workers and Members of their Families came into force in July 2003. It represents a positive move towards greater protection for migrants’ rights by providing a comprehensive set of standards for migrant workers in a single instrument, and recognizing the needs of undocumented migrants. However, this convention has been ratified by less than 30 countries, among which no major destination country. Obviously, ratification by destination countries, where most of the rights related problems occur, is needed for the convention to have the most impact.

As the international intergovernmental lead organization on migration management with offices in more than 150 countries all over the world, including in Latvia and in Ireland, IOM’s specific focus in labour migration is on the development of policies and the implementation of programmes that individually and mutually benefit governments, migrants and societies by:

A) providing effective protection and services to labour migrants and their dependents;

B) promoting economic and social development;

and C) encouraging forms of labour mobility as an alternative to resorting to irregular migration.

IOM assists governments and employers in the selection, recruitment, cultural orientation, training, travel, reception, integration and return of labour migrants.

But we also operate programmes counteracting the loss of skilled workers, and promoting brain circulation by encouraging the return and reintegration of qualified nationals and their contribution to the development of the country of origin (through small scale enterprise development, remittances management projects, building of management capacities in countries of origin, etc.).

I would like to finish my presentation with a few examples of labour migration projects that my office has recently been implementing in countries throughout the Baltic and the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood regions.

1) in 2004 in Lithuania, we implemented a project on the “Prevention of Illegal Labour Migration: Highlighting Legal Opportunities in the Expanded EU”. This project increased public awareness on legal labour migration possibilities and on the dangers and pitfalls related to irregular migration and migrant trafficking.

2) at present, in Belarus IOM is carrying out information campaigns aiming at distributing information to target groups about legal migration opportunities to the Czech Republic. The campaign is carried out via an telephone info-line, press conferences, leaflet distribution, public relations activities, and advertisements.

3) the three IOM offices in the Southern Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) have recently started to implement a EU AENEAS funded project on “Informed Migration”, which is promoting an integrated approach to legal migration through capacity-building of officials and a regional dialogue between the South Caucasus and the EU.

4) in Finland, IOM will soon start a project on the prevention of illegal employment of labour migrants and the promotion of legal employment opportunities. Partners in this project are from Finland (MOL), Latvia (Ministry of Social Affairs) and Russia (Federal State Employment Service Departments of St. Petersburg). This project establishes administrative cooperation and encourages the exchange of information and best practices between all partners and is a successful example of cross-border cooperation in the area of labour migration.

In a nutshell, while the impacts and causes of labour migration can vary, there are common benefits to be realized from cooperative management practices, the respect of international standards and the recognition of labour migration policies as an important element of public policy.

Economic development combined with protection for migrants and disincentives for irregular migration will serve the interests of all labour migrants and all states. And this is what IOM assistance to countries in the area of labour migration is all about.

Thank you for your attention.


[1] This section draws on: IOM (2005). Essentials of Migration Management. Geneva.

[2] However, bilateral agreements can be difficult to conclude for two main reasons: lack of interest of some receiving countries, and the fear of sending countries that by setting too high a standard of protection, their nationals will be less competitive on the international labour markets.

[3] Nos. 97 and 143, ratified by 42 and 18 States.

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