The ethical case for guest workers

22 Oct 2013
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WHEN the UN General Assembly held its second high-level dialogue on migration and development in early October, the focus was on the benefits of “freer and safe movement of people across borders” within “an inclusive globalisation process.” The final declaration recognised the “important contribution” migration can make to realising the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and an eight-point agenda for action encouraged member states to ratify and implement treaties and conventions that expand and protect migrants’ rights.

What’s not clear is whether the meeting discussed the potential conflict between those two goals – between increasing migration and expanding migrants’ rights. It’s an uncomfortable thought, but it’s quite possible that a willingness to sacrifice certain rights – or put them on hold – could increase the economic gains from labour migration for the host country, the source country and the migrant workers.

It’s no theoretical matter. Implicitly, the question is answered in the affirmative every day by millions of migrant labourers toiling around the globe. From Bangladeshi construction workers in the Gulf States to Philippine maids in Singapore, from Pacific Islanders picking fruit in Australian orchards to undocumented Mexicans washing dishes in North American diners: to some degree, temporary migrant workers in the low-skilled industries of developed countries have traded rights for opportunities…

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Photo: Nathan Rein/ Flickr

Nathan Rein/ Flickr

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2013
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