Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 11 (Summer 1998): Toward a "Social Foreign Policy" with Asia: Exploring Commonality: Developing a "Social Foreign Policy" for the Lived Realities of Migrant Workers

Jun 5, 1998

Any social foreign policy that we develop has to be understood in the context of the lived realities of migrant workers in our countries. We need to re-examine the value system in which migration is taking place in Asia.

We cannot continue to commodify labor, to commodify women’s bodies, and to put profit before people. We have to see migrant workers not just as economic tools, but as social beings with families, with relationships, with networks, with dignity, and with the fundamental rights shared by all people. If a social foreign policy is to be developed, then it goes without saying that it must be developed within the framework of fundamental human rights. This framework incorporates all of the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but we should recognize that economic, social, and cultural rights receive less attention in the international community than do civil and political rights.

We need balanced initiatives in order to develop stronger mechanisms for monitoring the economic, social, and cultural rights of migrant workers. But that balance must be created and developed in partnership, because much of the work is already under way: initiatives are being made and migrants are getting organized. That experience must be brought into the process of developing indicators to monitor migrant workers’ economic, social, and cultural rights.

The issue of migration needs to be discussed in terms of government, but not in terms of only one government. There are a number of governments involved in the process, and therefore there has to be multilateral dialogue, discussion, and accountability. We need to look at the gaps in the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, together with the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention and the UN human rights covenants, to see where there are gaps between current realities and the global economic strategies that are applied. Regarding monetary mechanisms, the ILO has to be strengthened in order to look more critically at the violations of migrant workers’ rights.

Second, migration occurs mainly because of inequalities in development. Therefore, we need to rethink what development means within the current context of globalization. The financial crisis in Asia demonstrates the need to change how we think about development, about how money is mobilized and used, and about who ultimately benefits from it. For me, it is difficult to view trade policies as being completely separate from social policies because of the impact one has on the other. We usually talk about development in economic terms, but it is fundamentally about meeting the basic needs of human beings.

Certain countries are now subjecting migrant workers to forced repatriation. We need to develop reintegration programs that are collective and cooperative in nature, and that either upgrade the skills of those who have returned or strengthen their newly acquired skills. Recently when I was in Bangladesh meeting with migrant returnees, for example, they told me that they had acquired new skills in areas such as construction but were not able to use them.

Finally, our societies should engage in an educational dialogue, because the process of migration creates fear and tension in receiving countries about the resources that migrant workers use. There must be dialogue to increase the understanding that ultimately we are all human beings, that we all work for each other, and that behind what I as a consumer choose to buy is the toil of migrants who have lost families, or whose families have suffered. If we can bring that message to countries on both sides of the Pacific, then we are working together to offer

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