Feeding the Global Compact on Migration: How do immigrants contribute to developing countries’ economies?

By Michelle Leighton, Chief, Labour Migration Branch, International Labour Organization (ILO), and Theo Sparreboom, Senior Economist, ILO


Woman-sewing-Ha-Tay-Vietnam
Photo: Shutterstock.com

Before going to Thailand, I already had sewing skills but I did not have the money to open a store. Instead, I had to work as an employee and earned a small income. When I got back to my hometown, I had some savings and was able to open a tailor shop.1

– Female migrant worker from Viet Nam


Contrary to popular belief, migrants have a limited impact on labour market outcomes in low- and middle income countries.2 They are unlikely to take jobs from native-born workers. In some countries, including South Africa, immigration may even create jobs and raise the incomes of the native-born population.

One reason why migrants do not take away jobs is that they are often in jobs that do not appeal to native-born workers. These include so-called non-standard forms of employment such as temporary work, agency work, and dirty or dangerous work. This is not surprising since for many people migration is a necessity and not a choice. Poverty or lack of opportunity encourages people to look for prosperity abroad. While regular channels of migration exist, they are often bureaucratic and expensive. Migrants who use cheaper options may end up in situations of exploitation and abuse.

Proper management of migration can play an important role in increasing the benefits of migration, for both migrants and native-born workers. National migration policies based on international labour standards and ILO guidance that protect migrant workers’ rights, together with effective labour market information systems, are steps in the right direction. Ghana, for example, is undertaking efforts to improve data collection with respect to immigrant workers, and aims to maximise the benefits from migration through the implementation of a new national migration policy.

With the number of migrants reaching 258 million worldwide,3 the large majority of which migrate for work according to ILO estimates,4 actions need to be taken to ensure they can find decent work. Actions are also necessary so they are not exposed to discrimination and rights violations, nor end up in irregularity. A lack of labour protection for migrant workers undermines the protection for all workers.

Migration should be a priority for the international community, and has increasingly become one for governments and other stakeholders around the world. The global importance of migration is reflected in the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, particularly Target 8.8 on the protection of labour rights for migrant workers and Target 10.7 on well-managed migration policies.5 Migration’s value is also at the core of the 2016 adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which calls for a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) and a Global Compact on Refugees. Such efforts are opportunities to maximise the benefits of migration, address its challenges, and ensure the protection of the rights of all migrants so they can be an engine for sustainable growth, innovation and development.

The recently released zero-draft of the GCM now being negotiated at the United Nations is a step along the way towards improving labour market outcomes for all workers. The guiding principles and objectives being proposed for the GCM would commit member States to promoting and adhering to international standards on human and labour rights as well as allowing for the formation of a comprehensive framework on international co-operation on human mobility and migration.

But if we want debates to have a real impact, then they should build on real data. The GCM draft text recognises this, making its first objective a call for adequate data collection and robust evidence development. The ILO is fostering global statistical standards and definitions for this purpose through its work with the International Conference of Labour Statisticians. New guidelines should be adopted this year.

National and regional experiences will be critical in the discussion as well. Regional economic development has tangible implications for labour migration governance. Rights at work, for example, are not always transferred as easily between participating countries. Some regions are further along than others in protecting the labour rights of all members. Thus, the GCM could provide a framework for more concrete actions by governments and key stakeholders to push countries towards inclusive and effective regional migration polices.

Ultimately, migration can be a dynamic force for positive change in labour markets and the economy. It is the responsibility of global and national actors alike to ensure migration is a choice, not a necessity, and to fight discrimination and xenophobia against migrants wherever they exist. We can do this by marshalling the proper data and analysis that can better contribute to constructive debates around migration policy. This will help to ensure that the public perception of migration is more aligned with the evidence base, and ensure that all workers, including migrant workers, are treated fairly and with respect for human and labour rights.



1.ILO/IOM (2017), Risks and rewards: Outcomes of labour migration in South-East Asia, International Labour Office, Thailand.


2. A recent publication by the OECD Development Centre and the ILO (How immigrants contribute to developing countries’ economies) provides new evidence on the impact of migration on the labour markets of ten developing countries. Much of the international debate and policy discussion on migration is still based on research done in Europe and North America. The report provides important inputs to the formulation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), which aims to maximise the benefits of migration in all countries.

3. UNDESA (2017). International Migration Report 2017, United Nations, New York.

4. ILO (2015), ILO Global Estimates on Migrant Workers. Results and Methodology. Special Focus on Migrant Domestic Workers, International Labour Office, Geneva.


5. See: http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/dw4sd/themes/migration/WCMS_558577/lang–en/index.htm.

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