Key Recommendation 2: Enabling migrant workers' job mobility

Destination states should promote a fairer labour market for all workers, by introducing accessible measures to allow migrant workers to transfer employers in a timely manner without obtaining special permissions.
Lennon Ying Dah Wong
A meeting of a domestic worker union, Taipei. © Lennon Ying-Dah Wong / Flickr

Restrictions on migrant workers’ ability to move jobs in destination countries have a significant undermining effect on fair recruitment. Recruiters and employers are well aware of workers’ limited options when placed into an exploitative situation. The knowledge that changing jobs will be challenging if not impossible for workers enables recruiters to charge workers high fees and engage in deception about their terms and conditions.

This in turn reduces incentives for employers to ensure that workers are recruited fairly, understanding and consenting to the nature and terms of their employment. All destination countries in this study have procedures for workers facing abuse to leave their employers, but these can be inaccessible, complex and require a high burden of proof. When these systems function effectively, that at least allows workers to make complaints in cases of serious abuse.

Tied visa schemes where there is no straightforward way to switch jobs create an excessive power imbalance between employer and employee, reducing workers’ agency to shape their own destiny. Tied visa programmes often have domestic political support, allowing governments to argue that they are protecting the privileged access of citizens to jobs and that they are in control of immigration and the labour market.

In reality their effect can be to depress salaries to the point where nationals may be unwilling to enter sectors in which migrant workers are employed, and to drive workers employed by abusive employers into irregular status.

They also incentivise the hiring of foreign workers, who - unlike citizens - have restricted ability to leave their jobs: one study notes that for business, “there are many reasons to prefer foreigners, including the fact that they tend to be more ‘loyal’ to their employer because they generally lose the right to be in the country if they lose their jobs.” Citizens, in other words, do not necessarily benefit from tied visa policies: they may indeed find that such schemes make it more difficult for them to find jobs.

Employers often oppose increased job mobility for migrant workers. Some argue that allowing migrant workers to switch employers more easily is incompatible with ensuring fair recruitment. If employers are expected to pay for all the costs associated with a worker’s recruitment, the argument goes, then they should be guaranteed that worker’s services for a certain period.

Some employers told us that if workers were able to switch jobs, many would do so quickly after arriving, to get better wages and/or change sectors, causing disruption to their businesses. While there is little evidence that improved job mobility for migrants leads to mass resignations or labour market instability, this argument - that workers are likely to want to leave their jobs immediately if permitted - also suggests that many jobs migrant workers are hired into, under tied visas, have artificially low wages and poor associated conditions. Migrant workers recruited fairly into decent jobs, where employers respect their rights, are less likely to be inclined to switch jobs at the first opportunity.

Fair recruitment cannot be assured if workers are tied to their employers and dependent on them for their immigration status, a model which dominates temporary migration programmes in many countries. Governments should introduce appropriate measures to allow migrant workers to transfer employers legally, in a manner that is simple, accessible, timely and open to all workers, and delink their residency status from their employer. The opportunity to move employers should not be restricted only to workers who have lodged cases of abuse or exploitation.

However effective they may be, such restricted schemes mean that workers are only able to switch jobs while simultaneously reporting their employers to the government, turning the act of changing jobs into an adversarial act. Governments should:

2.1. Remove legal restrictions on migrant workers changing employers before the ends of their contracts, including any requirement to seek permission from the current employer.

2.2. Provide simple, timely procedures for workers to change jobs within the country, and legal measures to ensure they are fully protected from retaliation including repatriation, while doing so.

2.3. Remove any criminal charges linked to working for employers not specified on visas or work permits.

2.4. Ensure that migration pathways do not tie migrant workers’ residence status to a single employer.