International Migration and Work: Charting an Ethical Approach to the Future

Donald Kerwin
Center for Migration Studies

International Migration and Work: Charting an Ethical Approach to the Future


This research was conducted at the request of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) as part of a two-year special initiative entitled “The Future of Work, Labour After Laudato Sì.”[1]

This article explores the future of work, international migration, and the intersection of the two at a time of rapid change, uncertainty, and disruption for migrants, laborers, and their families and communities. It draws on human rights principles, international law, and religious values, particularly from the Catholic tradition, to chart an ethical approach to the governance of these timeless phenomena.

What does the future hold? Under one dystopian scenario, the future of work will be characterized by massive job loss due to automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Politicians and business leaders will characterize the resulting human displacement as an unavoidable “disruption” and byproduct of change. Euphemisms, however, will poorly mask the loss of livelihood, self-esteem, and a central marker of identity for countless persons, particularly the poor and vulnerable. Technological advances will decimate families, communities, and entire ways of life. For many, stable work will become a thing of the past, and technology an instrument of marginalization and discrimination. Algorithms will be used to “perpetuate gender bias” (ILO 2019a, 35), pit workers against each other, and squeeze the maximum productivity from them for the minimum compensation. The “inappropriate use” and “weak governance” of algorithms will lead to “biases, errors and malicious acts” (Albinson, Krishna, and Chu 2018). Large swaths of the world’s citizens will become (at best) the unhappy dependents of states and global elites.

The future of migration seems equally daunting. Current trends suggest that the number of international migrants will continue to rise due to job displacement, violence, natural disaster, and states that cannot or will not meet their fundamental responsibilities. If the past is prologue, unscrupulous politicians and media sources will also continue to blame migrants for the economic and cultural displacement of their constituents, xenophobia will increase, and migrants will encounter hostility in host communities. Natives will criticize their governments and institutions for failing to protect their interests and needs, and migrant laborers will be caught in the middle.

This article does not minimize the urgency of the challenges presented by migration and work. It documents the unacceptable living, working, and migration conditions of immense numbers of the world’s citizens. It offers, however, a more optimistic vision of the future than the dystopian view, a vision characterized by international cooperation and solidarity. It recognizes the potential of technology “to render labour superfluous, ultimately alienating workers and stunting their development,” but also its potential to “free workers from arduous labour; from dirt, drudgery, danger and deprivation” and “to reduce work-related stress and potential injuries” (ILO 2019, 43). It recognizes the way in which fear of displacement can lead to exclusionary nationalism and xenophobia, but also the possibility of unity based on the shared values embedded in the cultures of diverse persons. It recognizes the costs of migration, but also its immense contributions to host communities. The article argues for person-centered systems and policies that promote the freedom, rights, and dignity of workers, migrants, and migrant workers, and that strengthen migrant host communities.

It begins by examining the challenges facing low-income and vulnerable migrants who struggle for decent work, are the most likely to lose their jobs, and are “the least equipped to seize new job opportunities” (ILO 2019, 18).[2] It then presents an ethical, person-centered vision of migration and work, rooted in human rights principles, international law, and Catholic social teaching. The article also draws on principles articulated in the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM); the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR); and the Holy See’s Twenty Action Points for the Global Compacts. It ends with a series of recommendations that seek to bring this vision to fruition.


[1] The project “The Future of Work, Labour After Laudato Sì” is a global initiative that connects Catholic-inspired and other faith-based organizations to help promote and implement Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Sì (On Care for Our Common Home) in areas related to work. The initiative brings together international, regional, state, and local actors to improve global governance and to highlight just policies and good practices. The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) led the research track for this project on “Jobs, demography and migration.” ICMC commissioned three studies on different populations of migrants and potential migrants — two with the Scalabrini Migration Center in Manila, and one from the Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa in Cape Town. This article integrates this work into an ethical framework that can serve as a guide to the future of work and migration. It draws heavily from a previous paper (Kerwin 2018a) that appeared in a report by the Caritas in Veritate Foundation entitled Rethinking Labour: Ethical Reflections on the Future of Work (de La Rochefoucauld and Marenghi 2018).

[2] The article does not focus on well-credentialed, highly skilled workers, which states, local communities, and corporations seek to attract.


Author Names

Donald Kerwin

Date of Publication April 24, 2020
DOI 10.1177/2311502420913228
Volume 8
Issue Number 2


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