Press Releases

News from EPI Temporary labor migration programs around the world leave too many migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse

In a new report, Daniel Costa, former EPI Director of Immigration Law and Policy and Philip Martin, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis, argue that temporary labor migration programs (TLMPs, or “guestworker” programs)—even if carefully managed by governments—have left too many migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and too many employers reliant on temporary, low-wage migrant labor and thus without the incentive to develop a sustainable local workforce and improve wages and working conditions. The report seeks to inform United Nations member states as they prepare to adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM) in December 2018 at the U.N. Intergovernmental Conference in Marrakesh, Morocco.

“We hope governments will use this moment to take a critical look at how temporary labor migration programs have failed to remedy labor shortages and safeguard the human rights of migrant workers,” said Costa. “If these programs are to continue to exist, they must be immediately improved in ways that protect the human rights of migrant workers seeking opportunities for decent work in destination countries.”

Costa and Martin outline several pitfalls of temporary labor migration programs, and urge governments to consider labor migration models that foster authentic development while protecting the rights of migrant workers and those who labor alongside them. Costa and Martin identify a number of challenges facing temporary labor migration programs, including:

  • Temporary labor migration program rules and structures are inconsistent with international human rights norms, and labor standards enforcement is inadequate, making guestworkers vulnerable to exploitation.
  • Temporary labor migration programs have failed to achieve the goal of remedying real or perceived labor shortages, and these programs may keep wages artificially low for guestworkers in destination countries.
  • Nearly all temporary labor migration programs in industrial countries grow larger and last longer than anticipated as employers and migrant workers become dependent on them.

“There are 150 million migrant workers around the globe. Far too often, those who are employed in guestworker programs are unable to access labor standards protections because of the structures of guestworker programs and the nature of the employment relationships they create,” said Martin. “Vulnerable and exploited workers are not an effective means to jumpstart economic development in countries of origin.”

The authors make several recommendations for improving governance and labor standards in guestworker programs, including:

  • Replace temporary labor migration programs with programs that, after a short provisional period, allow migrant workers to petition for permanent immigrant status, and allow family members to join.
  • Establish expert groups or commissions to determine whether migrant workers are truly needed by analyzing labor market data and weighing the trade-offs that are inevitable in labor migration.
  • Experiment with job or visa portability, at least allowing guestworkers to at least change employers within an industry or when labor disputes arise.
  • Take actions that allow workers in temporary labor migration programs to exercise their freedom of association without fear of retaliation and removal.
  • Implement clearly defined and strictly enforced “firewalls” between labor standards enforcement agencies and immigration enforcement agencies.
  • Help guestworkers access justice by providing legal services and postponing removal and other immigration enforcement actions for guestworkers involved in labor disputes.
  • Implement mandatory registration systems to better regulate labor recruiters, ensure transparency in the migrant worker recruitment process, and prevent worker-paid fees.
  • Cooperate with governments in countries of origin by publicly sharing information about labor recruiters and employers, and take measures to hold recruiters and employers jointly liable for legal violations.
  • Integrate unions and worker organizations into the governance process temporary labor migration programs.
  • Collect and publish more data on temporary labor migration programs and cooperate with other governments to develop new international standards for measuring program impacts and effectiveness.