Berlin sports conference highlights unfolding migration challenges

03 July 2017 15:57


Global migration – driven by economic, political and cultural conditions – is reshaping the global economy, and with it the global trade union movement as well. At the BWI Global Conference on the Nexus of Sports and Migration in Berlin on 27-28 June, representatives from Unions, Governments, multinational companies, civil society organisations and international sporting bodies came together to discuss how to address these challenges.

Mega-sports events – like the Olympics and FIFA World Cup – are fast becoming a core driver of international migration for construction workers. In low-wage countries like Nepal, India, the Philippines, Vietnam and China recruitment agencies entice workers with promises of good jobs and a better life. Upon arrival, many find themselves mired in debt, forced to work long hours in extreme conditions, with their freedom of movement and other rights severely restricted.

BWI affiliates across the globe are using the public profile of mega sports events to create organising strategies to bring these vulnerable workers into unions and protect their rights. Migrant workers now contribute around 30% of Nepalese GDP, and Bishnu Rimal of GEFONT (Nepal) explained how they have built a global network of workers and union activists, working in cooperation with unions in South Korea and Malaysia to protect Nepali migrant worker rights in the construction industry.

Baik Seok Keun, President of the Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Unions outlined a number of initiative the unions are doing to uphold migrant workers’ rights.  He presented a recent case, where the union had assisted in getting back wages for irregular Vietnamese migrant workers.  The team of 10 Ironworkers were unpaid for three months’ wages totaling $USD 150,000.  The subcontractor that had employed these workers went bankrupt and through the union’s intervention, they were able to get the wages back from the main contractor. 

Similarly, INBCWWF President Ramachandra Khuntia described their union’s efforts to provide pre-departure orientation sessions for workers heading offshore, as well as their assistance in bringing back 512 stranded migrant workers over the last three years from countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Other global events are also changing the global landscape. YOL-IS President Ramazan Agar described how almost six million migrants fleeing war in Syria have cross the border into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. “While we are happy to host them, we are calling on European countries to take a fair share of the burden to help meet their collective needs.”

In late 2015 Germany opened its border for thousands of refugees and migrants.  According to Monica Bergen from Refugee Council, the German population was utterly unprepared for this and thus there was a sever backlash against migrants and refuges.  She stated that there is unfortunately amongst the Germans there is no a definition of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ refugees linking them to their country of origin.  She raised concerns that this may result in refugees living in social exclusion and once they enter the labour market they may face exploitation by employers and forced to take precarious jobs and jobs that are precarious.  s this may result in refugees being forced to take precarious jobs.

Michelle Leighton, Chief of MIGRANT for the ILO mentioned that there is no global consensus on the definition of safe and humane migration. From ILO’s standpoint – the governance on migration has to be fair – belief that the migrants have the ability to migrate safely.   She reiterated the point of equal pay for equal work highlighted by Fritz Heil of IG BAU in his opening, where there should be no differential in wages and working conditions for nationals and non-nationals for the same work, this differential treatment also leads to social dumping and creates unfair competition in business.

In the Americas, Gonzalo Mercado from the National Day Labourer Organizing Network, a network of 30 organizations and workers’ centers in the United States.  Mercado outlined a number of risks migrant workers’ particularly from Central America and Mexico face in the United States.  He stated, there is currently a culture of criminalization of migrants heightend by the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented migrants and the decision of the US Supreme Court to uphold the travel ban is creating a climate of fear amongst migrant workers, including amongst Mexican migrants in the United States construction industry.

In 2018, the world’s Governments will come together at the United Nations to commit to targets on migration, including labour migration. This presents an opportunity for unions across the world to create a fairer system of migration, crack down on migrant worker exploitation and defend the rights of migrant workers. The BWI will be at the forefront of this effort, making sure migrant workers in the construction, wood and forestry and building materials sectors are represented and their interests are protected.