Rivista di etica e scienze sociali / Journal of Ethics & Social Sciences



Two related global phenomena are drawing attention at present: the development of Free Trade and the growth in the number of migrant workers. These two contrasting trends are often understood as the "flow of capital from the First World" and "the flow of labour from the Third World." Free trade is based on the idea of letting market forces determine economic growth. The free mobility of capital and goods for world trade is being welcomed as "good news" for the world’s modern economy. The powerful heralds of globalisation are, of course, the First World nations.

Theoretically, free mobility of labour is also considered as a necessary component of the principles of Free Trade. However, the issue quickly becomes a very touchy one. The free mobility of scientists, engineers and other economic technocrats working for the big companies who invest in other countries is the acceptable face of labour mobility. They are the group of workers who get a "free ride" on the global movement of economic forces. They become an indispensible conponent in the running of a Free Trade economy.

Strictly speaking, they are part of the world’s migrant workers. Their high expertise in the science and technology, engineering and economic fields has given them the most favoured employment opportunities in the global economy. They are the element within the wider definition of "freely mobile labour" that is universally acceptible in the global economy. The heralds of Free Trade have no difficulty in accepting this definition.

However, this group represents a mere fraction of the world’s migrant workers, most of whom come from the Third World. They are not just the highly-trained scientist, technicians and economists but also those who can only manage to find work on the lowest level of the work scale. The idea of the "free mobility of labour" presupposes the idea of migrant workers. When we take note of the growing number of migrant workers from the Third World moving to the First World, then this idea becomes politically and economically impalatable to the Free Trade advocates. All of a sudden free mobility of labour becomes totally out of the question. It is not hard to understand why the affluent countries are very favourable to the free flow of goods and capital but they are less keen on the free flow of labour. In the latter, the poorer countries have the upper hand.

The present trans-national movements of labour and capital are creating many dilemmas. Both trends are creating some problems on either side. The Third World countries feel almost hopeless in the race to compete with First World Countries. On the other hand, the First World countries feel the burden of accommodating the onslaught of migrant workers from Third World countries. It is not hard to understand that totally unrestricted mobility of either goods and capital or labour could be tremendously disasterous to the global economy.

With regard to these two global phenomena, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR) is more concerned with the one that touches the humanitarian problems of the poor. The situation of migrant workers (both documented and undocumented) has been considered by the UNHCR as a major problem area as far as human rights are concerned. On December 18, 1990, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the "International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families" Subsequently, several follow-up conventions were proposed but failed at the ratification stage. As of April 18, 1999, the latest update of the United Nations document on its web page [reference] indicated that the International Convention had been ratified or acceded to by Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cape Verde, Colombia, Egypt, Mexico, Morocco, Philippines, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Uganda. This year’s two new signatories are Azerbaijan and Mexico, who signed up on January 11 and March 8 respectively. Twenty Member States are needed to ratify the Treaty. It still lacks nine signatories for it to come into force.

The Treaty is still unratified because of the tough attitudes of the affluent Member States of the United Nations against signing the Treaty. The G7 countries have shown no signs of willingness to ratify it, in particular, no European Member State has signed the Treaty. What could be the possible reasons behind their refusal to do so? Has it something to do with the European Treaty, entitled "The European Convention of the Legal Status of Migrant Workers"? This Treaty was signed on the 24th of November 1977 at Strasbourg. The core of the treaty is the multilateral agreement to care primarily for the "migrant workers" which merely refers to the nationals of the Members of the Council of Europe. In contrast, the UN Treaty of 1990 aims to defend the rights of all migrant workers and their families regardless of their nationalities. Would the Council of Europe Member States ever be willing to give up their Regional Treaty in favour of the International Treaty? There is no easy answer but if one reviews the task of caring for all migrant workers and their families, one could see the overwhelming burden that this could create. As a result, Members of the Council of Europe would find it more rational to hang onto their Regional Treaty than to adapt to the International Treaty. The UN Treaty requires of them a much greater burden of care than that of their Regional one. The long inaction of the European Member States clearly indicates their unwillingness to sign the UN Treaty.

This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the ratification of the UN Treaty. The irony of this is that the EU Member States often pride themselves on their respect for human rights in the EU and on their extensive labour protection. The UN Treaty is an acid test of the European conviction not in some far-flung part of the world but on European soil itself. From a different point of view, the UN Treaty is also an acid test of the convictions of the advocates of Free Trade since it recognises that freedom to enter not only the free flow of goods, capital and technologies from the First World, but also to the free flow of labour.

The uncertainty surrounding the ratification of the UN Treaty is very much influenced by the fear caused by the growing number of migrant workers, especially in the affluent states. Looking ahead, it could be argued that in the event of its ratification, the treaty would encourage more and more people to migrate to First World countries. The snowballing of the number of migrant workers from the Third World could be a more potent force than any amount of capital freely flowing from the First World.

The bottom line concerning the UN Treaty’s ratification, however, is that noone really knows what is likely to happen. The difficulty of foreseeing and predicting its effects is not insurmountable, rather the cause is the unwillingness of the rich European countries to undertake this task. In the meantime, real people are denied their human rights for lack of international protection. It is not good enough to let these people carry on suffering because the rich countries are afraid of what might happen if they ratify the treaty.

The UN Treaty is not lacking in merit. The delay of its ratification should not be understood as a sign of the limited importance of its substance. Rather, this time should be used to give more time for serious considerations, especially with regard to ways to avert any possible adverse effects it might have. Basically what is needed for this treaty to come to force is to find the right international regulations so that the number of migrant workers will not balloon to unmanageable proportions.

The continuing advocacy of this treaty by the poorer nations reflects the real need for it to come into force. But the real challenge to get it started is first to find the measures that can assuage the fear of the First World nations so that they will become willing parties to the Treaty. The truth of the matter is that as long as this UN Treaty remains unratified, the UN’s basic concept of human rights is seriously undermined or could even be thought of as lacking in substance. So long as the affluent states continue to feel uneasy about the Treaty, they are going to give it little consideration and its ratification will hang in the air indefinitely. As a result, the hope for international legal protection for the human rights of migrant workers will remain in limbo.


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