Happy Human Rights Day, but haven’t we forgotten something?

X was a young care worker who was raped and beaten by her employer on several occasions. She refused to take action against him until her colleagues reported him to the police.

Y was a domestic worker in a private household. She was required to work around the clock, bullied and not paid. She eventually left after befriending a man who offered her somewhere to live – her original accommodation was tied to her job. She trusted him because he spoke the same language as her. She moved in and was sexually assaulted by him.

Z refuses to do anything about his employer despite his trade union’s offer to assist him. His employer is paying him well below the terms of his written contract. What do all of these cases have in common?

A conundrum

The above were all non-EEA migrant workers who came to work in the UK. The operation of our Immigration Rules would have seriously restricted their ability to find a way out of their predicament through finding alternative work. The domestic worker would have been limited to finding work in this capacity only, and large parts of the labour market would have remained shut to the others.

Similarly they would all have been deterred from taking action against their employer or simply leaving and subsequently looking for alternative work as this would  generate a potential threat of of removal on account of a brief spell out of work – powers to curtail immigration leave/implications for settlement.

Additionally would have been worried about how they could cope with the loss of employment – they would all have been inelligible for homelessness assistance, and eligible only for a handful of contributory benefits – those with irregular status would have been entitled to no benefit at all, and would also have been prevented from enforcing  statutory/contractual employment rights as it is likely that their contract  would have been classified ‘illegal’.

The Migrant Workers Convention (MWC)

The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families whilst far from perfect, attempts to engage with precisely this kind of conundrum of  by pulling together international human rights standards and making them applicable to the reality of migrant workers.

Through offering equal access to social housing and unemployment benefits (the latter does not extend to irregular migrants) and rights to free choice of employment after two years unless necessary in the interests of the state (when read in conjunction with the ILO Convention 143- which we also have not signed up to) migrants are accorded important entitlments that could minimise their vulnerability to exploitation.

Additionally requirements on states both not to curtail leave before it expires in circumstances where there is a loss of employment, and to give migrant workers a set time in which to find alternative work (equivalent to the length of time national law permits the receipt of benefits for) also offer migrant workers an appropriate breathing space in which to resolve their difficulties.

The UK’s position on the Convention

While the UK was criticised by the United Nations Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights in the past for non-siganture/ratification of MWC, it was Labour policy  not to sign it.

Although the Liberal Democrats previously adopted a resolution  in support of ratification of the Convention, this took place in the ’good ole days of opposition’ and not in the context of a coalition.

Whilst we continue to call for the reflection of  MWC standards in our lobbying work, the sad reality is that cases just like those above are likely for some time to continue to overshadow what should after all be a day of celebration of what  binds us together – our common humanity.

Please voice your support for the Convention by signing the petition calling for it.

You can read more about the Migrant Workers Convention in JCWI’s Guide to the Points Based System expected out in January 2010.

About jcwi

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is a key campaigning voice in the field of immigration, asylum and nationality law and policy. It is completely independent from government funding, remaining entirely free from government influence. View all posts by jcwi

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