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Having examined the legislative frameworks of the European Union in our previous article, we now broaden our scope to present a global perspective. The United Nations (UN) stands as a beacon of collective global governance, with its influence reaching every corner of our interconnected world. When it comes to the rights and welfare of migrant workers, the UN’s oversight is all-encompassing.

The United Nations, with its impressive assembly of member states, champions the cause of universal human rights. Among these, the rights of migrant workers hold a distinguished place. As a global overseer, the UN’s role is essential in establishing the overarching standards and principles that nations worldwide strive to uphold.

In this piece, we will review the United Nations’ contributions to migrant labour rights. We will detail key conventions and covenants that solidify the rights of migrant workers in international law. From the foundational Universal Declaration of Human Rights to specialized conventions specifically addressing migrant worker protections, we aim to highlight the UN’s steadfast commitment to this vital cause.


United Nations

  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW) – 1990
    • Relevance: Addresses the specific needs and rights of migrant workers, including equal treatment in employment, the right to medical care, and protection against arbitrary expulsion.
    • Example: A nurse from the Philippines working in the United States would be protected under this Convention, ensuring she receives equal treatment in employment, access to healthcare, and is not unjustly expelled.


  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
    • Relevance: A foundational document that asserts fundamental human rights applicable to everyone, including migrants.
    • Example: An Indian software engineer in Canada could rely on UDHR to assert his right to work and not to be subjected to arbitrary discrimination in the workplace.


  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
    • Relevance: Offers important protections like the right to life and freedom of movement that apply to migrant workers.
    • Example: A Syrian labourer in Germany would benefit from the ICCPR’s protection of his right to life and freedom of movement, potentially against restrictive or discriminatory labour practices.


  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
    • Relevance: Includes Articles on the right to work, health, and education which are highly relevant for migrant workers.
    • Example: A Nigerian teacher in the UK could assert her rights to decent working conditions and access to healthcare services based on this Covenant.


  • ILO Convention No. 97 (Migration for Employment Convention)
    • Relevance: Focuses on the equal treatment of migrants in employment.
    • Example: Mexican workers recruited to work on farms in the U.S. should receive equal treatment compared to domestic workers in terms of work conditions, pay, and social security under this Convention.


  • ILO Convention No. 143 (Migrant Workers Convention)
    • Relevance: Aims to protect the basic human rights of all migrant workers, including employment rights.
    • Example: Construction workers from Nepal in Qatar would be protected against exploitation and would have their basic human and employment rights secured under this Convention.


The international legal framework pertaining to migrant workers’ rights is both broad and intricate, attempting to address the myriad challenges these workers face globally. Central to this framework are instruments like the UDHR, which offers a universally applicable set of principles, ensuring that every individual, including migrants, is entitled to a foundational set of rights. This universality is supplemented by the specificity of laws like the ICRMW, which hone in on the unique vulnerabilities and needs of migrant workers, creating tailored protections that underscore their rights’ importance.

Moreover, the emphasis on socio-economic protections is evident in the ICESCR, which recognizes the rights of migrant workers to work under favourable conditions, and to access essential services like healthcare and education—rights that are paramount given the economic exploitation many migrants confront. Discrimination is another significant challenge for migrant workers, and both the ILO Convention No. 97 and No. 143 focus keenly on ensuring equal treatment, emphasizing that migrants shouldn’t be exploited or treated unfairly due to their status.

However, this framework is not without its limitations. A prominent challenge lies in the ratification and implementation of these instruments. Not all countries have embraced conventions like the ICRMW, and even among those that have, a discrepancy often exists between the letter of the law and its practical application. Enforcement remains a persistent concern, with many countries lacking robust mechanisms to uphold these international standards. The UDHR, while foundational, provides a general framework, and the unique vulnerabilities of migrant workers might not always find detailed redress within it.

The challenges facing migrant workers are multifaceted, intertwining socio-economic, cultural, and political threads. Although the existing instruments address many of these issues, no single tool offers a comprehensive solution. Additionally, as the nature of migration evolves, reflecting factors like climate change and digital work’s complexities, the conventions, many framed decades ago, might not fully capture the present-day challenges of migration. In essence, while the existing framework is commendable, ensuring holistic protection for migrant workers necessitates not only a robust international foundation but also dedicated national efforts, effective enforcement, and an adaptive approach to contemporary migration challenges.


In our final article of the series, we will transition from the theoretical to the pragmatic, spotlighting actionable measures talent acquisition managing companies and their clients can adopt to uphold these critical international standards. While grasping the legal framework is essential, its tangible influence is determined by its hands-on application. Protecting the rights and welfare of migrant workers isn’t just an obligation of nations; businesses, particularly those leading in talent acquisition, have significant influence. By weaving these legal principles into their daily operations, such organizations can set the pace, cultivating a worldwide corporate ethos that consistently advocates for the rights and respect of migrant workers.


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