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Now, a passport for workers rights

By Shyamal Majumdar
May 21, 2004 09:51 IST
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Immigrant workers can take heart. Thanks to the initiative of information technology workers in India, the Union Network International has established a "UNI passport", which allows service workers to maintain their rights as union members as they move from country to country. 
It's a significant move forward for migrant workers in countries such as India. For, more money is sent home to India by migrant workers living abroad than to any other country in the world. 
A study by Harvard economist Mihir Desai has shown that although the 1 million Indians living in the United States are equivalent to only 0.1 per cent of India's population, they earn the equivalent of 10 per cent of India's national income, and they are sending a lot of this back. 
According to estimates made by the International Labour Office, the monthly cheques from migrant workers are vast: currently, global flows are estimated to be about $80 billion a year, and growing fast. 
And there is no sign of reversal in the migration flows, according to a United Nations 2002 Migration Report. Between 1990 and 2000, the developed countries have experienced the greatest increase in migrants: 13 million, or 48 per cent, in North America and 8 million, or 16 per cent, in Europe. 
Today, nearly one out of every 10 inhabitants in the developed countries is an immigrant, compared to one out of 70 in developing countries, says the report. 
The number of people living and working outside their countries of origin has doubled since 1975 to a global total of 175 million, representing about 3 per cent of the world's population. The ILO estimates 120 million -- the large majority -- of these to be migrant workers and members of their families. 
The concern is that despite their vast numbers and economic importance, migrant workers often lack basic legal protection and are considered cheap, docile and flexible labour. 
They are mostly labouring at the bottom of the occupational ladder, and with little knowledge of the local language. Women make up half or more of the migrant workers in Asia and Latin America, and their proportions are rising elsewhere. 
The UNI passport is a good move forward towards migrants from Asia joining mainstream unions in their countries of employment. 
That the going has been tough so far is evident from the following example: Wal-Mart, the world's biggest company, was taken to court last year by a group of former immigrant employees who had accused the US supermarket chain of conspiring with cleaning contractors to employ them in conditions that were "one step away from slavery". 
The migrant workers said they had to work for seven-night, 56-hour weeks at the budget stores for as little $325, well below the national minimum hourly wage. 
Although Wal-Mart denied it vehemently, it was also accused of failing to make required workers' compensation and social security payments and failing to withhold federal payroll taxes. 
In some countries, however, there have been several encouraging cases of migrant workers getting a fair deal. Trade unions in industrialised countries have increasingly recognised that organising and protecting migrants is part of the challenge posed to the labour movement by globalisation. 
In several countries, existing unions can revitalise their membership by admitting migrants, an ILO Report released on Thursday says. 
One example is the Industry and Construction Trade Union in Switzerland, where two-thirds of the members are now foreigners; another is the Portuguese Workers' Project that led to many of the 20,000 Portuguese workers in the United Kingdom joining unions there. 
A majority of the 6,00,000 new members gained by the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations are migrant workers from Latin America and the Caribbean. 
In Germany, unions in the construction and agriculture sectors established links with Polish unions, and opened an office in Warsaw to disseminate information on working conditions and labour rights as well as to encourage workers to join unions before arriving in Germany. 
In Italy, the Italian Confederation of Workers Unions has signed collaborative agreements with unions in countries like Tunisia, Senegal and Peru. 
Two ILO conventions provide a basic framework for national legislation and practice on labour migration. 
They stipulate that countries actively facilitate fair recruitment practices and transparent consultation with their social partners, reaffirm non-discrimination, establish a principle of equality of treatment between nationals and regular migrant workers in access to social security, conditions of work, remuneration and trade union membership. 
Fifty states have ratified one or both of the ILO Conventions, including 11 member-states of the European Union. 
But the conventions have lost some sheen as India and China are among the 18 countries that have not ratified the conventions. This means that about half the world's workers and employers do not enjoy protection under the two conventions. 
The Indian government says though it recognises the principal, there are economical, political or cultural problems in giving legal effect to them.

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