Migrant Workers: A Global Labor Crisis


How come 60 to 80 percent of the workforce in the Gulf states was born in another country?

Why is it that, as of 2019, there were 255,800 foreign domestic workers in Singapore?

Why are there around 3 million migrant farmworkers in the United States?


Every year, people from all around the world make the difficult decision to leave their communities in pursuit of better socioeconomic opportunities. These people are known as migrant workers.

Migrant Workers

Migrant workers leave their countries of origin due to a shortage of jobs. They are usually seeking economic survival for themselves and their families. The countries to which they migrate are normally facing a shortage of labor in lower-paid sectors. Consequently, the salaries of migrant workers tend to be lower than those of their national counterparts’. Additionally, the job opportunities they can access are oftentimes temporary or seasonal.

How It Works

Each region of the world has different sectoral needs that alter the patterns of migration. For example, agricultural migrant workers follow the harvest, whereas domestic workers usually take on year-long contracts. This can be better exemplified through the cases of Europe, North America, and Southeast Asia.

European countries have seen an increase in low-wage positions due to their high rates of incoming migrant workers and refugees since 2015. The jobs available to these individuals are mostly in urban areas, meaning they are employed in domestic work, the food industry, construction, tourism, and transportation. However, migrant workers in Europe struggle with cultural assimilation due to the lack of governmental support they can receive, given their contracts are usually short-term. Their short stays could potentially affect the economy by reducing income and tax revenues. This could be due to a fall in wages in the sectors where immigrants work, and an increased need for public and social services due to the salary decline.

In North America, migrant workers perform predominantly agricultural jobs. They move across regions to follow the harvest times. In the United States, these workers are most present in places like southern California, Texas, and Florida, and they tend to move towards New England. Most of the workers come from Central and South America, and they perform a variety of difficult manual labor tasks. Similarly to workers in Europe, their salaries are low, and a study recently found that more than half of U.S. migrant workers live below the poverty line.

Amongst the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, there are 9.9 million migrant workers. A majority of them are citizens of another ASEAN country. They perform a mix of agricultural, healthcare, domestic, and manufacturing and textile labor. Because of the feminization of some of these industries, nearly half of the migrant worker population is women who are usually the sole source of income in their households. These individuals usually have very weak contracts that make them more vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking. 

These three examples encapsulate the different contexts in which migrant labor occurs. However, there are some common aspects of their experiences worldwide. Migrant workers often do not enjoy basic rights because of their legal status; some of them are undocumented. Because of that, they cannot advocate for higher wages or better working conditions. 

Why Care?

Migrant labor is a pressing humanitarian issue. Given the economic system in which we live, the need for human workers will not dissipate. What can be changed is the conditions under which these migrant workers perform their daily tasks. Regional organizations in Asia have started systems to send migrant workers abroad while still providing safe regulations for their labor and reducing their chances of being exploited by the receiving countries. International organizations, like UN Women and the International Labour Organization (ILO), are also collaborating with local governments to ensure that the human rights of these workers are being respected.

Think Further

  1. How could migrant workers be integrated into and protected within the law?
  2. What are the connections between migrant labor and economic development?
  3. How could employers ensure the safety of undocumented workers? 


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Learn More

  1. Migrant Workers in Asia and the Pacific Region. (n.d.). https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/en/focus-areas/women-poverty-economics/migrant-workers.
  2. OHCHR | Committee on Migrant Workers. (n.d.). https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CMW/Pages/CMWIndex.aspx.
  3. International Labour Standards on Migrant workers. (n.d.). https://www.ilo.org/global/standards/subjects-covered-by-international-labour-standards/migrant-workers/lang–en/index.htm.