International Labour and Migration Rules


Excerpt From: Rischard, Jean-Francois.

“High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years To Solve Them.” iBooks.


“Here’s an issue right at the confluence of the two big forces discussed in Part One. The new world economy force demands more attention to the labor rules national economies apply—as they interact more and more with each other. The demographic force throws in a series of migration-related issues. It is hard to imagine the world twenty years from now not having some sort of global labor market rules in place—because such a market is clearly in the making.

The issues around labor rules are both ancient and in flux. Ancient because one of the world’s oldest international institutions, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has been at it since 1919. And in flux because things are changing so much, with new ways of working, more growth in independent work than in salaried work, and the decline of unions. Yet the greater interdependence between countries created by the new world economy makes it more urgent to find a stronger and broader global framework for labor rules than has evolved so far. Simplifying a bit, there are four levels to consider in such an effort:

Core labor rights.

Four preexisting “core labor standards” were reinforced by a 1998 declaration that many countries have adhered to: prohibiting slave, bonded, and forced prison labor; prohibiting discrimination in the labor place for any reason; prohibiting child labor outside certain minimum age and other conditions, and combating its worst forms such as child prostitution, child sale and trafficking, child soldiers, and so on; and ensuring workers the freedom of association and collective bargaining. The main challenge is no longer the desirability or even definition of these standards, but worldwide enforcement.

A broader set of labor rights.

For the twenty-first century, this could include health, safety, minimum working conditions, access to social safety nets, dispute resolution systems, and access to labor rights by nonsalaried workers, whose number is growing fast in the new world economy.

“Decent work.”

There are new ideas around about moving beyond mostly negative labor rights (thou shall not use forced labor, and so on) towards emphasizing greater and more equal access to opportunities.43 Some talk about a “right to economic initiative”—and more participation by workers and unions in formulating the policies and institutions that will move societies in that direction. Some think that the level of job creation ought to be made an important measurement of well-being everywhere. Decent work also connects to the concern that in developing countries, the search for more growth to reduce poverty must include a search for the right kind of growth, one that empowers the poor to get the best out of their main asset—their labor (see Chapter 13).

New style of work.

People worldwide will increasingly work for many employers at a time through “portfolio working.” They will telecommute from great distances (some 30 million in the United States already). They will need to upgrade their knowledge through lifelong learning. And they will have to be able to commute from one pension system to another. A number of new, creative global measures will have to accompany this reinvention of the traditional, local labor place into a global labor space. (One such measure, mentioned in Chapter 13, has to do with cross-border accreditation of skills.)


The global thinking has been good at the first level, but progressively less good at formulating the rules for the levels farther down the list. The international resolve behind the four core labor standards has been successful: even countries like Myanmar, which had condoned both forced labor and child labor, have begun to buckle under the pressure of these standards. The standards have also been one of the engines behind the adoption of some 700 voluntary codes of conduct by multinational enterprises.

Yet this success hasn’t been followed by equally crisp global thinking about the next three levels. Just as with e-commerce and biotechnology, the underlying phenomenon—in this case the making of a global labor market—is surging way ahead of the world’s ability to come up with a minimum set of relevant, helpful, and coherence-creating global rules. To the contrary, clear thinking in the whole area of labor rules took a blow in the recent attempt to link labor standards to the trade rules system—a link that developing countries promptly saw as yet another way for rich countries to keep developing-country products out of their markets.

Migration rules may be in an even worse state of flux. Samuel Huntington, the author of The Clash of Civilizations, calls migration the central issue of our time. As we saw in Chapter 2, rich countries face aging and rapidly declining populations, while the developing world will struggle over the next twenty years with intense population pressure and poverty challenges. Developing countries, with more than 95 percent of the world’s population increase, will worry about not being able to create enough jobs; rich countries will worry about having too few active workers to sustain growing numbers of elderly dependents. Without immigration, Italy, with one of the world’s lowest birth rates, could see its population decline from 58 million to 40 million in the first half of this century. By 2020, Germany will need 1 million immigrants of working age per year simply to maintain its workforce.



More government leaders now understand that the two problems can be solved by enabling, through some sort of global rules, wellpaced migration from the poorer to the richer countries. Germany has started a special visa system for information technology workers and is now going beyond this with policies encouraging permanent immigration for the first time. The United Kingdom is also revising its immigration laws. Spain has been looking to Latin America for large-scale population balancing.

But these first moves are a far cry from addressing the emerging global migration pressure. The question is whether the international community will come up with shared migration rules early, or whether it will be panicked into them after a lot of damage is done. This is evident in the following strands:

Human smuggling and trafficking.

A burgeoning phenomenon, very much controlled by the underworld, with some 5 million people a year being smuggled and some $10 billion of earnings, this is one of the fastest-growing areas of international criminality. Some global rules are needed because human trafficking feeds not just on poverty but also on the greater restrictions to legal immigration. Because of those tougher restrictions, legal immigration has decreased 25–30 percent in the United States and Europe over the last five years. Rules are also needed because discovery and prosecution risks are kept low due to insufficient international coordination, weak visa and border controls, lax sanctions, and sometimes corruption. This is an urgent global issue—not a week goes by without a disgraceful human tragedy.

Asylum rules.

Countries with more open asylum rules end up with a proportionally huge burden—implying the need for a stepped-up global coordination of standards.

Migration rules themselves.

The number of countries receiving migrants has increased from forty in 1970 to about seventy today; those supplying migrants, from thirty to fifty-five. Fifteen countries are in both categories. A global labor market is in the making, yet countries have liberalized only trade and investment flows, not migration flows. In fact, immigration laws have become more variegated and restrictive, with little result except for trafficking. The alternative of helping the supplying countries to reduce outbound migration pressures hasn’t been followed either—recall the declining aid offered by rich countries since 1990. What’s really needed is some sort of global get-together around a positive migration agenda that will be win-win for both the sending and the recipient countries, and that changes the terms of the mostly negative debate about migration so far.

Brain drain issues.

Some countries thrive by exporting engineers and scientists—in India it’s almost a national business. Yet Jamaica must train more than five doctors just to keep one, and in Botswana, a country where 38 percent of the sexually active population in the fifteen to forty-nine age group is threatened by AIDS, several hundred nurses leave every year for better wages in the United Kingdom.Some sort of global reflection in this area would be welcome, including with respect to taxation. Brain-drain taxes and exit taxes are suspect from a human rights standpoint, but resorting to U.S.-style citizenship-based income taxation could at least help countries recoup some of the education costs incurred for their migrants even after those have left the country.

The labor and migration issues, like the other nineteen issues, bring up one central message: the world has become very small, entangled, and complex, bringing all kinds of global issues to the fore—none of which we can afford to leave unsolved for very long.”

Excerpt From: Rischard, Jean-Francois.

“High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years To Solve Them.” iBooks.