Trade unions and migrant rights

By Aisha Lorgat

As March is human rights month in South Africa, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on human rights in relation to international or cross-border migrants, a group of people whose presence in the country is often questioned and sometimes violently challenged. These reflections emerge from my own research looking into these issues.

International human rights instruments do not explicitly include protection of undocumented migrants, but arguments for their inclusion are made on both normative and pragmatic bases. The new denizens, as some refer to migrants, are often prevented from accessing rights de facto due to social practices, even when they are accorded de jure rights through legislation. As a result, an overwhelming majority of migrants are faced with limited options, have little voice, and have to make a living among and as part of the precariat. After 1994, South Africa was increasingly seen as a favourable destination for migrants seeking asylum and/or better economic opportunities, which they did not have in their home countries. This led to migration increasing tenfold during the first post-apartheid decade in South Africa.

Migration is generally seen as contributing to increasing labour market deregulation, decreasing labour standards and working conditions, as well as wages, and, ultimately, limiting locals’ access to available jobs. Migrants serve as a reserve of labour that is highly flexible, easily exploited, and that is unlikely to seek legal recourse for violations of labour law or join a trade union. This effect on the labour market is particularly apparent and problematic in host countries with pre-existing high rates of unemployment such as South Africa. This perceived labour market effect, combined with the perception that migrants are unlawfully and unfairly accessing limited and strained social services to the detriment of South Africans, and that they are responsible for criminal activities, contribute to negative stereotypes held on migrants.

As bona fide worker representatives, trade unions, therefore, have a major role to play in recognising and mitigating the dangers inherent in dividing workers into citizens versus denizens, or locals versus foreigners. Trade unions themselves are in decline, with union density rates falling, largely as a result of the increasing use of non-standard employment arrangements by employers. This is partly due to the fact that trade unions find it extremely difficult to access and organise atypical workers (including those employed under the aforementioned non-standard arrangements), many of whom are migrants (both domestic and cross-border). This is especially true for migrants, particularly undocumented migrants, who are always located in the periphery of the labour market due to their more vulnerable status, and this position in the labour market renders their claims to rights and the role of trade unions in supporting these claims more difficult but equally necessary.


Chris Hani institution 2018 Frontier Theme