Restricting migrant labour amid the global financial crisis could create more problems than solutions, according to one speaker on the eve of a four-day Global Forum on Migration and Development in Manila, with the theme Protecting and Empowering Migrants for Development.
Host governments should focus on developing migration policies, where mobility is a choice and not forced by economic desperation and where equal opportunities, human rights and protection are prioritised, Sharan Burrow, president of the International Trade Union Confederation and chairwoman of the conference's civil society discussions, said on 27 October.
"The guarantee of equal treatment as residents and workers is the only deterrent to exploitation [while] increasing legal avenues for migration of both highly skilled and less skilled workers will reduce irregular movements."
40 million labour migrants
Both host countries and countries of origin shared the same burden of caring for migrant workers, estimated to number 40 million, 10 million of whom are illegal.
"As with previous crises, migrant workers are likely to be the first to lose their jobs," Burrow said. "Sectors such as construction, where migrant workers are numerous, are being hard-hit.
"Last week, in the wake of the global financial crisis, a number of governments announced a possible tightening of their immigration intake," she said, citing comments by the International Labour Organization (ILO), which estimates the crisis could lead to the loss of 20 million jobs worldwide, while the number of working poor living on less than US$1 a day could rise by millions.
"We need prompt and coordinated government action to avert a social crisis that could be severe, long-lasting and global," ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said on 20 October.
With restrictions in place, the number of illegal migrants would also likely increase, with many taking illegal channels to escape harsh economic realities at home, Burrow stressed.
"Our fear is very real that those numbers will increase," she warned, adding that the "negative results will impact on all of us".
Restrictions will not only deprive countries of badly needed manpower, potential taxpayers and consumers, but will also "constrict rather than expand growth potential", Burrow said.
Labor market tensions in countries of origin could also rise, while remittances that prop up economies could go down, leading to more problems, she added.
"When you consider that we are talking about billions of dollars in some nations, including $14.4 billion here in the Philippines [in 2007], and up to 36 percent of GDP in countries like Moldova or 20 percent of GDP in Jordan, this is a serious consequence," Burrow said.
Reversal of fortunes
Jaime Zobel de Ayala, chief executive of Philippine conglomerate Ayala Corp and the forum co-chair, said the global financial meltdown was threatening to reverse economic gains built up over the past decade.
"Already, there is disturbing news of countries closing their doors to migrants in order to reduce domestic unemployment," he said. "This may lead to another era of protectionism and extreme nationalism, which in turn, may often degenerate into intolerance of differences in race, colour or religion.
"A downturn in the important economies around the world will result in dislocations which will reverberate throughout the world and will impact [on] the lives of migrants," he said.
Impact on families
Approximately eight million Filipinos or 10 percent of the population live and work abroad.
Conference speakers said migration could also "cause tremendous" problems at the family level, with estimates showing that about 60 percent of all migrants are women who leave their families to seek a better job elsewhere.
This risked potential abuse of children, as well as putting strain on relationships.
"The long periods of separation often result in broken homes. Overseas, the migrants themselves may suffer loneliness, discrimination and abuse," Ayala said. He also warned of a possible "brain drain" from labour-exporting countries, resulting in diminished capacity and a lowering of quality of service in areas such as healthcare and education.
The civil society groups and NGOs will present their recommendations to governments and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when he arrives in Manila later this week.