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 paper 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, 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.  However, euphemisms 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 “perpetuate gender bias” (ILO 2019, 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.  How to chart a different path for the future?

This paper 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.  However, it offers 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 paper 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 paper also draws on 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.

I. Migration and Work: Signs of the Times

“‘You know how to judge the appearance of the sky, but you cannot judge the signs of the times.’”  Mt. 16:4

In this age of globalization, rapid technological advances and climate change, the timeless phenomena of migration and work have emerged as “signs of the times;” that is, defining characteristics of the era that need to be interpreted in “the light of the Gospel” (Paul VI, 1965, para.  4).  A centerpiece of this analysis is that states, technology and the systems governing work and migration must serve the human person, not vice versa (UNGA 2018b, para. 15(a); Benedict XVI, 2011).

Charting an ethical approach to the future of migration and work requires teachers and leaders to engage in an intense process of social dialogue and learning, particularly with those most negatively affected by current systems and policies.

Charting an ethical approach to the future of migration and work is not solely a matter of passing down the wisdom of international bodies, states, or religious traditions. It requires teachers and leaders to engage in an intense process of social dialogue and learning, particularly from those most negatively affected by current systems and policies. To this end, Pope Francis in his second encyclical Laudato Sì (On Care for Our Common Home), advocates for “a process of change” that builds on the “lived experience” and insights of those on the peripheries (Francis 2015a).

The paper describes three research projects, commissioned by the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), that examine the challenges and prospects of migrant laborers and potential migrants. The first assesses the experience of Filipino, Indonesian and Vietnamese fishers on Taiwanese commercial fishing vessels; the second looks at migrant, asylum-seeker and refugee workers in South Africa; and, the third explores initiatives in the Philippines that seek to make agricultural careers a viable alternative to migration for young persons. These studies highlight different aspects of an ethical approach to migration and work, and they expose the great distance between just and humane policies and current realities. The paper also outlines several initiatives that seek to equip migrants and potential migrants with the education, training, skills and opportunities to allow them to flourish in their home communities, to return home successfully, and to integrate into their new communities. These initiatives address the future of work and migration with an urgency commensurate with the need.

The Future of Migration

“There are many people who think South Africa is an attractive place for work, but that is not the reality. You can see how many of us are hungry and how desperate we are.  Degreed people begging for food and guarding cars. This is the reality.”  South African asylum-seeker

The United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) reports that the number of international migrants grew from 173 to 272 million persons between 2000 and 2019 (UN DESA 2019; UN DESA 2017a, 4). The number of international migrants is projected to rise to 457 million by 2050 (Table 1).

Table displaying global migrants, 1960-2015 and estimates for 2050

The massive displacement caused by the transformation of the global labor market will be a major driver of international migration in the future. In theory, demographic disparities between states with shrinking working age populations and those with a growing surplus of workers offer a potential win-win scenario. States with aging workforces will need workers (IOM 2017, 59; Kerwin and Warren 2017, 305-307), and working age persons in developing states will need work.  However, shrinking native populations, coupled with rising levels of immigration, have led to a fear of racial and cultural displacement in many states, rising nationalism, and the vilification of immigrants.[3]  As a result, this dynamic may not lead to mutually advantageous policies. Tables 2 and 3 list the nations respectively whose populations will diminish (many developed states) and grow significantly (mostly African states) by 2050.  Many of the developed states are in the throes of intense xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, a trend that seems on the rise.

Graph displaying Percent Population Decrease in 37 countries between 2017 and 2050


Percent Population Increase from 2017-2050 in 27 countries

On the other hand, globalization has strengthened cross-border ties, which contributes to high levels of migration (MGI 2016, 51):

Global communications networks provide people with the information they need to move from one place to another. Global transportation networks have made it much faster and cheaper to cross the globe. And the growth of global social networks and diasporas (themselves a product of earlier migratory movements) have made it easier for people to move to another country and to adapt to a new society (GCIM 2005, 7).

Moreover, increased internal migration from rural to urban areas – which offer more resources and contacts to facilitate migration – will continue to be a steppingstone to international migration.  UN DESA projects that the percentage of the world’s population living in urban areas will increase from 55 to 68 percent between 2018 and 2050 (Table 4).[4]


The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Italy through its Centro Astalli seeks to integrate migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in a climate of growing political polarization. In 2018, political and social media campaigns incited hostility toward migrants, and violent attacks on black African migrants increased. Centro Astalli views work as the “cornerstone of the integration process,” a key step in the “path toward autonomy and social inclusion,” and a way to restore “dignity, confidence, and hope” to migrants and strengthen “social cohesion.” It conducts an orientation process with asylum seekers and refugees that identifies their goals, skills, and human capital, as well as their training needs and work possibilities. In 2017, the program made 1,335 work-related interventions for 267 refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, including orientation, job searches, and placement in internships and professional training courses. However, it has found that the “the difficulty, and sometimes impossibility” of getting recognition for work qualifications and credentials prevents many refugees from securing work.

Likewise, the number of forcibly displaced persons has dramatically increased in recent years – from 43.3 million in 2009, to 70.8 million in 2018 (UNHCR 2019, 4). These migrants are driven by war, civil conflict, fragile states, and the collapse of the rule of law. Because returns, resettlement, local integration, and other durable solutions are not keeping pace with displacement (UNHCR 2019, 13, 27-33; Kerwin 2016, 86-89), the number of long-term, forcibly displaced persons will continue to grow. In addition, slow onset hazards caused by climate change, which often interact with rapid onset disasters, will displace tens of millions per year within their own nations (Rigaud et al. 2018), and will result in large-scale international migration as well.

The Future of Work

The radical expansion of computer processing and data storage capabilities allows an ever-growing number of work activities to be captured by algorithms, starting with fully automated activities like data searching and accounting, to hybrid activities like driving, to those involving more knowledge, judgment and creativity which cannot yet be automated (Kushida 2016). The need to establish what the International Labour Organization (ILO) calls a “human-in-command” approach to technological change and the future of work (ILO 2019, 43), is magnified by the present failure of the global labor market to provide decent work to billions of the world’s citizens. The ILO reports that:

  • 700 million workers in low- and middle-income countries live in extreme or moderate poverty (ILO 2019b, 15);
  • 10 percent are extremely poor (live in households with income or consumption of less than $1.90 per day and 16 percent are moderately poor (subsisting on between $1.90 and $3.20 per day) (ibid., 16).
  • 2 billion workers or 61 percent of the world’s labor force have informal employment, meaning they are “not covered at all” or “insufficiently covered” by “formal arrangements in law or in practice” (ibid, 12); [5]
  • 55 percent of the world’s workers do not enjoy “social protection” including 360 million workers who contribute to family enterprises (ibd., 6);
  • 1.1 billion working age persons (age 15 and over) work “on their own account” (ibid,).

High rates of migrant laborers experience many of these conditions, as well as additional problems due to their status as undocumented migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees or simply foreigners. An ICMC-commissioned study by the Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa (SIHMA), for example, examined the employment and working conditions of migrants and refugees in Cape Town, South Africa.  Researchers interviewed 58 persons – 17 subject matter experts, two employers and 39 migrants and refugees – and conducted focus groups with domestic workers in Lesotho, self-employed migrants and refugees in Cape Town, and migrants and refugees employed in the hospitality and construction industries in Cape Town in December 2018.

Roughly one-half of the respondents had fled “life-threatening situations” such as war and political persecution, “with limited planning and without resources.” The great majority were from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Lesotho. Refugees had chosen South Africa over camps in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to avoid persecution in camps and “to hide” in the broader community. Many of the women had fled with small children, and some had been victims of sexual violence and “sextortion” during the migration process. The respondents’ lives in South Africa had been characterized by “bureaucratic nightmares, systematic discrimination, violence, xenophobia and difficulty accessing basic services.”  They worked in the most unregulated and exploitative sectors of the economy.  More than one-half did not understand their socio-economic or employment rights.  As one Basotho woman put it, many thought they had “no rights because we are not South African.”

Although entitled under international law to “effective protection by the State against violence, physical injury, threats and intimidation,”[6] respondents reported that the risk of xenophobic violence increased as their jobs improved and, to a greater degree if they “owned their own businesses.”  Barriers to decent work included the inability to secure adequate documentation, exclusion from financial institutions, language barriers, a corrupt asylum permit renewal system, and non-recognition of degrees and work credentials. Undocumented migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees found it particularly difficult to secure work that reflected their educational achievements.

Workers in developed states also face immense challenges. In recent years, most advanced economies have experienced “rising inequality in wage earning and a falling labor share of income” (CFR 2018, 22).  In addition, growing percentages of persons work in “alternative” arrangements such as “independent contractors, freelancers, temporary employees, and gig economy workers” (ibid., 48).

Automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics will eliminate many jobs and change the qualifications and skills required for far more.  Jobs that are “technically feasible” to automate based on their constituent activities will be at particular risk (Chui, Manyika and Miremadi 2016). Predictable physical work or data processing and collection, for example, are “highly susceptible” to automation, while jobs that require managing others or expert “decision making, planning and creative tasks” are far less susceptible (ibid.).  Beyond technical feasibility, the pace of automation will depend on the scarcity of workers for particular jobs, the cost and non-cost benefits to automate, and “regulatory and social acceptance” of automation (ibid.).

In developing countries, two-thirds of jobs could be susceptible to automation in subsequent decades, although the pace and magnitude of job loss will vary based on occupation, technological advances and wages (World Bank Group 2016, 23, 126). McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) estimates that by 2030 automation could displace “up to 30 percent of current work activities … with a midpoint of 15 percent” (MGI 2017, 28).  An exhaustive study of 702 detailed occupations found that high rates of jobs in transportation and logistics, office and administrative support, production (manufacturing), and services, sales and construction were highly susceptible to computerization within a decade or two (Frey and Osbourne 2013). Job responsibilities will also be transformed on an immense scale. While fewer than five percent of current jobs can be fully automated, in 60 percent of occupations at least one-third of the tasks can be automated based on current technology (MGI 2017, 25-26). The transition to “an environmentally sustainable economy” will further alter the skills required for most jobs (ILO 2018b).

These studies point to the immense changes in the global labor market, but they do not predict the numbers of jobs that will be created by technological advances. Emerging research on geographically clustered industries suggests that there may not be a strong relationship between automation and net job loss.

The Future of Migrant Workers

These global trends affect all types of workers. However, they raise particular concerns for the world’s 150.3 million migrant workers, a large percentage of whom struggle to find decent work and whose jobs are highly susceptible to replacement by automation, artificial intelligence and robotics (ILO 2015, 16).

ILO reports that in 2013, 71.1 percent (nearly 107 million of the 150.3 million migrant workers) worked in services, 7.7 percent of them as domestic workers (ILO 2015, 8-9). Many service sector jobs entail predictable physical activities and the “operation of machinery” and, thus, can be easily automated (Chui, Manyika, and Miremadi 2016).  Nearly 18 percent of migrant workers (26.7 million) worked in industry, including manufacturing and construction, 11.1 percent (16.7 million) in agriculture, and 7.7 percent (11.5 million) as domestic workers (ibid.). In developed states, agricultural work will be transformed, but the pace of change will depend on the continued availability of low-wage (mostly migrant) workers and the feasibility of mechanization for particular crops. [7]

Migrants possess advantages in the labor market as they confront a less certain future. For example, they are adaptable, more willing to move than natives and often willing to perform new jobs, multiple jobs, and jobs that often carry a social stigma in host communities.

Highly-skilled migrants will remain in high demand and the object of global competition for their services (CFR 2018, 19; ILO 2018b). Automation and artificial intelligence will eliminate jobs primarily filled by lower-skilled and lower-income persons (CFR 2018, 3). However, the rapid aging of the workforce in developed countries creates a rising demand for hard-to-automate personal service, and nursing and elderly caregiving jobs (ILO 2018b), which migrants occupy at high rates.[8] The “care economy” – jobs that require “heart” – could generate 475 million jobs by 2030 (ILO 2019, 46).  An estimated 19 percent of the world’s 1.6 million domestic workers live in Arab states where long-term trends – like longer life expectancy, the projected quadrupling of the elderly population by 2050, and the growing number of women in the workforce – will lead to greater demand for migrant domestic workers to care for the elderly and children (Kagan 2017, 3-4).

Migrants also possess other advantages in the labor market as they confront a less certain future. For example, they are adaptable, more willing to move than natives (MGI 2016, 63; Peromingo and Pieterson 2018), and often willing to perform new jobs, multiple jobs, and jobs that often carry a social stigma in host communities.

However, there are many uncertainties that make it difficult to project how automation, artificial intelligence and robotics will affect migrant workers. New technologies, for example, will create new jobs, but at an uncertain pace and level. It is not clear how committed states and the private sector will be to training migrants to fill new jobs or to meet new job requirements. As stated, technological capabilities will change in ways not yet anticipated, and the deployment of new technologies will vary based on cost, occupation, labor supply, and country.  Limited access to technology and to the skills that would maximize the use of technology (Peromingo and Pieterson 2018), may impede migrants’ access to gig economy platforms and work (Hunt et al., 2018).

II. An Ethical Vision of Migration

“Every significant action carried out in one part of the planet has universal, ecological, social and cultural repercussions …. Consequently, no government can act independently of a common responsibility.  If we truly desire positive change, we have to humbly accept our interdependence.”  (Francis 2015b).

An ethical view of migration would demand far greater urgency in preventing and mitigating the conditions that drive migration.  It would recognize the right to migrate in some circumstances and the right not to have to migrate in most circumstances. It would lend support to policies that safeguard migrant rights, benefit both migrants and their new communities, and seek to unify persons based on the shared values embedded in diverse cultures. It would be premised on an honest assessment of the contributions of migrants, while acknowledging the need to minimize the hardships caused by migration.

Human Flourishing, the Right Not to Have to Migrate, and the Right to Return Home

Catholic social thought holds that all persons have a right to flourish in their home communities or, conversely, a right not to have to migrate. “The fundamental solution,” Pope Benedict XVI said, “is that there would no longer exist the need to emigrate because there would be in one’s own country sufficient work, a sufficient social fabric” (Benedict XVI 2008). How can this right be realized in practice?

First, it is imperative to prevent and mitigate the conditions forcing migrants to uproot.  To the end, the Global Compact on Refugees calls on states and other stakeholders to:

tackle the root causes of large refugee situations, including through heightened international efforts to prevent and resolve conflict; to uphold the Charter of the United Nations, international law, including international humanitarian law, as well as the rule of law at the national and international levels; to promote, respect, protect and fulfill human rights and fundamental freedoms for all; and to end exploitation and abuse, as well as discrimination of any kind on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability, age, or other status.   (UNGA 2018a, para. 9).

It also calls upon the international community “to support efforts to alleviate poverty, reduce disaster risks, and provide development assistance to countries of origin, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and other relevant frameworks (ibid.).

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 commits states and other stakeholders to “[p]romote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” (UN 2015).

Youth responded favorably to agricultural work if they viewed it as profitable, well-supported, modern and socially valuable career.

Second, states and the private sector should explore ways to allow and encourage residents to remain at home. Between 1991 and 2018, the percent of the world’s workers employed in agriculture fell from 44 to 28 percent (World Bank 2019).  ICMC commissioned the Scalabrini Migration Center in the Philippines to examine programs designed to offer young Filipinos a career in agriculture as an alternative to migration. The backdrop for this study is the aging agricultural workforce and significant “retreat” from agriculture by Filipino youth and society, linked to its low pay, lack of prestige, insecure land ownership, patterns of emigration, and higher levels of education among youth than older cohorts.

Researchers conducted 21 informant interviews and focus group discussions with 66 participants. They concluded that the contributions of the agricultural sector and workers should be better incorporated into educational curricula. The study highlighted the value of programs that:

  • Offered young people practical training and capacity building (including overseas);
  • “Glamorized” farming as a way to promote sustainable and healthy living, food security and sustainability;
  • Enhanced scientific and technical capacity;
  • Rewarded innovation;
  • Promoted pro-environment practices and fair trade; and,
  • Supported marginalized and indigenous farmers.

They found that youth responded favorably to agricultural work if they viewed it as profitable, well-supported, modern and a socially valuable career.  As one young farmer put it:

I found my livelihood in farming. With the training I availed of, I realized that farming, coupled with the adoption of modern technology, is the best way to help the community, by producing food that is needed by the increasing population.

The study recommended that barriers to youth participation in this field be addressed through greater access to: (1) knowledge and education about agricultural work; (2) land; (3) financial services; (4) green jobs; (5) markets; and (6) meaningful engagement in policy dialogue.

Programs that seek to allow persons to remain in their home communities often align with refugee/migrant reintegration programs. Such programs often operate in migrant source and destination communities. Caritas Ghana, for example, works with girls who migrate from Northern Ghana to cities where they live marginal existences characterized by homelessness, sexual exploitation, political exclusion, and the “denigrating tag” Kayayee, which means “those who carry loads.” (Zan Akologo 2018, 165-68) Often, the girls’ exploitation in Ghana leads to exposure to human traffickers who promise better job opportunities, but who instead transport them overseas to work in the sex trade.  One response has been to facilitate the girls’ reintegration into their home communities. Another has been to improve access to education for poor families and to provide Technical and Vocational Education Training that equips girls and young women with the skills to pursue a trade.

Similarly, Caritas Senegal works with women and girls with little formal education or job training who migrate from rural to urban areas in Senegal, only to find worse living conditions than those they left (Seck 2018, 169-71). Typically, these women work in trade, catering, pounding of millet, and do housework.  They face violence in the workplace and low wages, and often live in unsafe public places and apart from their families for six to nine months per year. Caritas Senegal seeks to educate rural populations about these difficulties, and to allow program participants to return to their home communities, with paid work and health insurance.


The right not to have to migrate is illusory for large numbers of the world’s workers. The loss of millions of agricultural jobs in India has led, for example, to massive internal migration and large-scale migration as survival strategies. The Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute has responded with an initiative that seeks to understand and address the causes of migration, to secure safe migration options, to support migrant groups to realize their rights, to prepare migrants to secure improved living and working conditions, to facilitate crisis interventions, and to build a platform for policy interventions.  Among other migrant vulnerabilities, the program addresses language barriers, ghettoization, exclusion from public benefits and services, xenophobia, health hazards and infectious diseases, gender-based violence, discrimination, and exploitation in “dirty, dangerous and degrading” jobs, including bonded labor.

The responsibility of states individually and collectively to promote the common good

The flipside of the right not to have to migrate is the responsibility of states to promote the “common good,” defined expansively as the “sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfillment” (Paul VI 1965, para. 26). These conditions include “everything necessary for leading a life [that is] truly human,” such as “food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious” (ibid).

Catholic teaching recognizes that state action can contribute to or hinder human flourishing beyond its borders.[9]  The concept of the “universal common good” speaks to the need for states and the international community to “tackle and solve problems of an economic, social, political or cultural character” that cannot be addressed unilaterally “with any hope of a positive solution.” (John XXIII 1963, para. 140).

International migration is, by definition, one such challenge: “No country can address the challenges and opportunities of this global phenomenon on its own” (UNGA 2018b, para. 11).  For this reason, the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration provides that “a comprehensive approach is needed to optimize the overall benefits of migration, while addressing “its risks and challenges for individuals and communities in countries of origin, transit and destination” (ibid.).

The Right to Migrate

International law recognizes the right of persons to leave any state and return to their state of origin, [10] but not the concomitant right to enter another state. The ideal migration system would promote and facilitate migration by choice, and would address the conditions giving rise to forced migration, while mitigating its effects. When conditions do not permit persons to survive, subsist, or lead fully human lives at home, many religious traditions recognize that they have a right and responsibility to seek better lives for themselves and their families, including through migration.

Migration from developing to developed states has long been one of world’s most successful anti-poverty strategies (Clemens, Montenegro and Pritchett 2009).[11] Migration might best be viewed as an instrument of development.  As one scholar explains:

Migrants do not simply move to escape development failure; many use the opportunities that arise from development success to invest in migration. Migrants do not simply compete with others at their destination, but contribute to the complexity and division of labour that is the taproot of the wealth of nations.  Economic migration is a decision made by individuals and families to invest in mobility – a decision shaped by government policy, but not an act of government.  Migration shapes and is shaped by development, and migration is one channel by which economic actors reach their fullest potential (Clemens 2017).

The UN migration and development dialogue has stressed the need for policies that maximize the development potential of migration for migrants and for their communities of destination and origin, and that minimize the invariable costs and hardships of migration (Kerwin 2013). An exhaustive 2015 report – which details the immense economic contributions of migrants – offers an important corrective to public claims that migrants burden their communities. It finds that in 2015, international migrants constituted 3.4 percent of the world’s population, but contributed 9.4 percent ($6.7 trillion) to the global GDP, most of it attributable to the movement of migrants to “higher productivity” settings and jobs. Low- and middle-skilled workers together contribute about the same as high-skilled migrants to global GDP, although the latter contribute more per capita (MGI 206, 9, 71). Migrants contribute to their new communities through innovation, starting businesses, filling labor gaps and allowing natives to pursue higher-value work (ibid, 61-62).  Moreover, these contributions increase as migrants integrate and advance in their new communities.

Although developed states place the most restrictions on migration (IOM 2017, 174), they also garner most of its benefits. They host 65 percent of the world’s migrants, but realize more than 90 percent of migrants’ absolute global GDP contributions, which amount to 13 percent of their GDP (MGI 2016, 56).

As of 2016, foreign nationals held more than one-half of all patents filed in the United States (ibid., 10).  Resettled refugees – an object of frequent public criticism – compare favorably to the total US population, as measured by personal income, self-employment, college education, homeownership, and computer literacy (Kerwin 2018b, 20-21).

Politicians and the media often exaggerate the negative consequences of migration. However, the cost of government services to new arrivals in North America and Western Europe is lower per capita, than to native-born households, primarily because natives are more likely than migrants to receive pension benefits (MGI 2016, 11, 69).  In addition, immigration has limited impact on native employment and wages (ibid., 67).  However, local economies may need a period of adjustment following large inflows, particularly if “the skills of new arrivals make them close substitutes for native workers” or if the destination community is experiencing an economic downturn (ibid.). Immigrants have “a small but positive fiscal impact in their new countries, averaging approximately one percent of GDP annually,” and their net positive fiscal impact increases with the years they work (ibid., 70-71).

Respecting the rights of migrants at every stage of the migration process

Respect for the rights of migrants – as human beings, not just laborers – at every stage of the migration process is a central tenet of an ethical system of international migration. The Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration stresses the need to “ensure effective respect for and protection and fulfilment of the human rights of all migrants, regardless of their migration status, across all stages of the migration cycle” (UNGA 2018b, para. 15(f)).

The 1951 Refugee Convention[12] does not seek to foster dependency, but to guarantee “the social and economic rights that refugees need to get back on their feet,” to support themselves and to contribute to their communities (Hathaway 2016). Similarly, the Global Compact on Refugees speaks to the need to respect the agency of migrants, to draw upon their talents, and to facilitate their full participation in the decisions affecting their lives, an ethic that might be paraphrased as “nothing for me, without me.” It points to a longstanding “epistemic injustice” – underestimating the ability of migrants to contribute knowledge and expertise – in the design of migration and refugee policies and programs. Yet as Pope Francis (2013) has insisted, migrants are “not pawns on the chessboard of humanity,” but persons “who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more.”


Casa Monarca provides humanitarian aid to migrants in Monterrey, México, including 850 meals per month, shelter, legal advice, and human rights courses. It concentrates on the causes of forced migration, human rights abuses against migrants and the high level of impunity for them. It uses legal mechanism to report and seek recourse for these violations. It also advocates with local government for the establishment of new humanitarian migration channels, and development strategies that enrich local communities. Finally, it conducts research on Central American migrants, on Mexican returnees, and on migrants in transit with a focus on exploitation, exclusion and denial of social rights.

Integration into the Host Community 

Integration is the preferred outcome for many labor migrants, the only durable solution available for most forced migrants, and a key metric for the success of the migration experience. The Global Compact on Refugees highlights the need to support communities in developing states that host the great majority of the world’s refugees and forcibly displaced persons. In addition, it recognizes that integration programs “In low- and middle-income countries” must meet “the needs of both refugees and host communities,” both as a matter of equity and to secure local buy-in (UNGA 2018a, paras. 64 and 98). To that end, the World Bank recently awarded Colombia a $31.5 million grant that seeks to expand work opportunities and social services for both Venezuelan migrants and host communities (Betts 2019). Successful integration also depends upon lifting up the agency of refugees and immigrants, allowing them to work, and facilitating their entrepreneurial activities.

Integration programs also depend on close partnerships between host community members, local officials, and refugee and migrant communities. To the Catholic Church, integration should foster “integral development,” defined as the development of each person and the whole person (Paul VI 1967, para. 14). Work is central to this vision and, as a result, many integration programs have prioritized education, skills training, and job placement.

Between 2014 and 2017, ICMC Pakistan supported an integration project for Afghan refugees. ICMC first established Local Livelihood Committees consisting of members of the Afghan community, local authorities, and host community members from different sectors. Persons who completed skills training received start-up support for their own enterprises, assistance in marketing their products, and job placement services.  As a result, 71 percent of program participants found work and reported increased income.

Because refugees receive proof of registration cards (PoR) that last only last 3 to 6 months, employers were reluctant to employ them. Absent a PoR, refugees can be arrested, and cannot register the birth of their children, obtain marriage certificates, or own property or a business. Missing documentation, in turn, makes it impossible for refugees to receive legal aid or UNHCR repatriation grants. To remedy these problems, ICMC provided free legal assistance to registered Afghan refugees related to arrests, financial and housing issues, family matters, repatriation procedures, the PoR card, birth certificates, education certificates and legal documentation. It also educated police, lawyers, civil society and the media on the needs and rights of refugees. ICMC has found that successful livelihood programs require that local communities and refugees understand the rights of refugees.

The Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (FMA), the Salesian Sisters St. John Bosco, initiated “A common home in the diversity of people” in 2002, and relaunched this project in 2014 inspired by Pope Francis’ call to welcome, protect, promote, and empower migrants. This initiative focuses on the integration and empowerment of migrants.

In the Horn of Africa, the FMA community has collaborated with the Ethiopian Catholic Church, the Italian Episcopal Conference and other congregations to combat human trafficking and provide alternatives to migration.  The program educates potential migrants on the risks of traveling to Europe, promotes vocational training, and seeks to create job opportunities. It has been particularly successful in placing refugees, migrants and potential migrants in the hospitality, fashion and agricultural sectors. In Spain, the FMA community assists migrants to rediscover their potential, develop work skills, and connect with employers. It also educates employers on the virtues and talents of migrants. As a result, more than 81 percent of program participants have found employment. In South Korea, the FMA community supports women from diverse Asian countries who have experienced domestic violence. It helps these women to rebuild their lives, obtain work, develop a positive family environment, and succeed in their new communities.

In Damascus, Syria, the FMS community serves mostly Muslim women who are “often illiterate, dependent on a male figure, and have lost everything.”  It offers a literacy course and, in collaboration with UNHCR and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, a sewing course for 100 women each year. Women who complete the course receive a diploma and a sewing machine. This program has allowed many women to start their own businesses and to found cooperatives.

Integration occurs through the encounter of culturally diverse persons in school, workplaces, faith communities, social institutions, and countless other fora.  It has the potential to enrich, strengthen, and lead to greater understanding by participants of their own traditions.

Migrant leadership and organizing through faith communities can facilitate integration into the larger community. Pastoral Migratoria was created in 2008 in the Archdiocese of Chicago, where it now includes 250 lay leaders from 40 Hispanic parishes, immigration coordinators in 127 parishes with mostly native-born parishioners, 200 priests, 59 religious orders, and many universities and partner organizations. Pastoral Migratoria has since expanded to several other dioceses. The program is a unique immigrant-led, parish-based organizing model devoted to service, justice, and accompaniment.  Immigrant leaders work with their own parish communities to identify their diverse needs and community-based solutions to meeting these needs in partnership with other institutions.  It employs the “see, judge, and act” methodology, which has led parish communities to address challenges as diverse as federal immigration reform, financial literacy, deportation and detention, family separation, health, anti-fraud, and others.

Culture plays a central role in the integration process. Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes that “ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities … shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”  Likewise, the Catholic Church does not view integration as a process of assimilation into an unchanging, dominant culture. It particularly rejects the ethno-cultural tenet that any one culture can fully express universal values (Fitzpatrick 1987, 150).  Rather, it teaches that migration has the potential to unite diverse persons based on the shared values found (partially and imperfectly) in their respective cultures (USCC 2000; Kerwin and George 2014). Integration occurs, in turn, through the encounter of culturally diverse persons in school, workplaces, faith communities, social institutions, and countless other fora.  Rather than diluting distinct cultures or religious conviction, “building bridges between peoples and cultures” has the potential to enrich, strengthen, and lead to greater understanding by participants of their own traditions.  As Pope Francis has explained:

Alongside the famous ancient maxim “know yourself”, we must uphold “know your brother or sister”: their history, their culture and their faith, because there is no genuine self-knowledge without the other.  As human beings, and even more so as brothers and sisters, let us remind each other that nothing of what is human can remain foreign to us (Francis 2019b).

III. An Ethical Vision of Work

“[I]f the whole structure and organization of an economic system is such as to compromise human dignity, to lessen a man’s sense of responsibility or rob him of opportunity for exercising personal initiative, then such a system, We maintain, is altogether unjust—no matter how much wealth it produces, or how justly and equitably such wealth is distributed.” (John XXIII 1961, para. 83)

Catholic social teaching on labor has developed over nearly 130 years in response to the conditions facing laborers (large numbers of them migrants) in eras of economic and social upheaval, including the present. Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum responded to the harsh conditions faced by laborers in 19th century Europe and the United States (McGreevy 2003, 128-129). [13] It argues for the need to value persons over profit, to use private property to advance the common good and to afford laborers a fair share of “the benefits which they create” in the form of wages sufficient to “comfortably” sustain their families, and decent working conditions (Pope Leo XIII 1891, paras. 20-22, 34).  It promotes “free agreements” between workers and employers, labor unions and associations, and solidarity between persons of different social classes (ibid., paras. 45-49).

These aspirations are now widely shared, if often honored in the breach. Goal Eight of the SDGs, for example, calls for, “sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” SDG target 8.3 speaks to the need to promote “productive activities, decent job creation, creativity and innovation” and the growth of “of micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises, including through access to financial services.”

Quadragesimo Anno – issued on the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum – builds on the earlier encyclical’s themes of good stewardship of private property and the just distribution of profits. It distinguishes between the right of private ownership, which allows individuals to provide for their families, and the moral intuition that goods are “‘destined’ for the entire human family” and should be used to further the common good (Pius VI 1931, paras. 45, 49).  It endorses the equitable distribution of wealth, payment of wages sufficient to support a family, and the right to found and participate in labor unions (ibid., paras. 60, 71, 87).  It emphasizes the dignity of workers and the “social character” of economic activity (ibid., para. 101).

John Paul II declared that work should express and increase human dignity (John Paul II, 1981, para. 9).  Through work, he said, the human person “achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’” (ibid.). He said that work also serves as “a foundation for the formation of family life, which is a natural right,” and allows human beings to “increase the common good developed together” (ibid., para. 10). He also underscored the need for “just remuneration,” understood as pay sufficient to allow an adult to establish and maintain a family and provide “security for its future” (ibid, para. 19). He called a just wage “the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly” (ibid.).

Decent work, lifelong learning, the fair division of profit, and robust labor unions represent central elements of an ethical vision of labor. However, as stated, this vision does not correspond to the reality of work for large numbers of the world’s citizens, including a high percentage of migrants who are not in a dialogic relationship with their employers or host communities. For too many of the world’s workers, including refugees and immigrants, this vision is not realized in practice.

The Scalabrini Migration Center in the Philippines studied the experience of fishers (all of them men) from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam working on Taiwanese fishing vessels.  Between December 2018 and January 2019, researchers conducted 34 interviews with fishermen – 12 Indonesian, 12 Vietnamese, and 10 Filipino – on their vessels and at church premises, train stations and a migrant center. It also consulted with key informants and convened a forum to discuss and enrich its research. The study found that private recruitment agencies (PRA) recruited and trained the respondents (all of them men) from the three nations, charging fees to the Filipinos that ranged from $1,944 to $2,721 and to the Vietnamese of between $2,500 to $4,200, including a $1,000 “anti-runaway deposit.”

It identified as a major governance problem the fact that the Taiwanese Ministry of Labor (MOL) oversees the living and working conditions of fishers in internal (domestic) water, while the Fisheries Agency (FA) has jurisdiction over distant water fishing, but lacks competence in labor matters. This explains, in part, the differential treatment between the two types of fishers, starting with wages: The internal fishermen received $745 per month, while those under the FA received $445 per month. Moreover, the Filipino respondents – all of whom were domestic fishermen – did not suffer the same “extreme experiences of abuse compared to Indonesians and Vietnamese.” The study found that the regulations governing distant water fishers were rife with conflict (ship owners and agents are typically the same entities), lack of redress (they do not include legal standards to protect fishermen), and lack of accountability (employment contracts go to fisher associations, not the FA).

Decent work, lifelong learning, the fair division of profit, and robust labor unions represent central elements of an ethical vision of labor. However, this vision does not correspond to the reality of work for large numbers of the world’s citizens, including a high percentage of migrants.

The respondents entered contracts of two and three years, but their terms were “rarely honored,” as evidenced by unanticipated paycheck deductions, wholesale violations of the eight-hour working days and required rest periods (the fishermen worked long hours and continuously for long stretches), and deplorable living conditions. Food was inadequate, sleeping areas shared, and restrooms not provided in small vessels.  Most of the Vietnamese fishermen ran away from their boats.

The fishermen worked in isolated conditions. Captains exercised complete dominion over the crew. Beatings were common, and dehumanizing verbal abuse a constant feature of life. Tensions between national groups often resulted in violence. Lack of connection to the outside world for five- to six-month periods exacerbated these problems. Only at port could the fishermen contact their families or support organizations.

Five of the Filipino interviewees belonged to union, but none of the Indonesians or Vietnamese did. However, the Vietnamese sought assistance from their labor brokers and the Labor Bureau. Others contacted non-governmental organizations and faith-based entities. Overall, the study found that fishermen experienced most of the ILO’s indicators of forced labor, which are “abuse of vulnerability, deception, restriction of movement, isolation, physical and sexual violence, intimidation and threats, retention of identity documents, withholding of wages, debt bondage, abusive working and living conditions, excessive overtime” (ILO 2012).

Among other recommendations, the respondents proposed better pay and salary parity between national groups, longer breaks, improved safety procedures, separate spaces for eating and sleeping, an end to verbal abuse and insults, and better medical care. The authors proposed that MOL be vested with responsibility for labor issues on both domestic and distant water fishing boats, and recruiters provide better training and preparation for work assignments. They also urged Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam to ratify C188 – Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188), which seeks, inter alia, to guarantee decent working conditions and to ensure that commercial fishing vessels meet minimal requirements.

Catholic teaching does not view work and workers in reductionist terms, as a mere commodity, factor of production, or means of exchange (Benedict XVI 2009, para. 62). Pope Francis insists that the impetus for the radical transformation of work envisioned by Laudato Sì – to create environmentally-sound and sustainable jobs,[14] to establish a human-centered economic system, and to “construct a humane alternative to the globalization which excludes” – will need to come from groups that have been relegated to society’s margins (Francis 2015b).  He has said that work should promote “integral growth that contributes to the entire ecosystem of life: to individuals, societies and the planet” (Francis 2019a).  To that end, ICMC has proposed that environmental imperatives be integrated into the ILO’s decent work agenda in order to promote work that mitigates environmental hazards, greater investment in “greener and safer forms of production,” and the health and safety of workers and their communities (ICMC 2019).

The Holy Father has also addressed work in the context of growing technological advances that threaten to displace countless workers and transform the global workplace. To the Holy Father, work should be a vehicle for “rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God” (Francis 2015a, paras. 103-04). For this reason, he sees access to “employment for everyone’” as a moral imperative and work as essential to very nature of human beings (ibid., para. 103)[15]:

We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment … Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves.   (ibid., para. 128).

Divorcing the human person from work, the Holy Father insists, leads to “something partial, incomplete, because the person is fully realized when he or she becomes a worker: because the individual becomes a person when he or she opens up to others, to social life, when he or she thrives in work” (Francis 2017).  Pope Francis has also spoken of the prophetic role of labor unions in promoting human dignity, and transforming the economy. “There is no good society without a good union,” he has said, “and there is no good union that is not reborn every day in the peripheries, that does not transform the discarded stones of the economy into its cornerstones” (ibid.).

IV. Principles, Standards and Guidelines for the Future of Work and Migration

The broad contours of the future of work and migration are becoming visible, but the particulars remain obscured. In these circumstances, a policy agenda geared towards realizing an ethical vision of migration and work must reflect known needs and known unknowns. What principles, standards, and guidelines would undergird such an agenda?

First, it would demand that states, civil society institutions, and the international community prepare for the future of work and increasing levels of migration, particularly forced migration, with a level of urgency and cooperation commensurate with the human stakes. As this paper has discussed, the status quo for large percentages of the world’s workers and migrants falls far short of international law, human rights and religious principles and standards. Moreover, the global response to the needs of poor and vulnerable workers does not bode well for a “human-in-command” to artificial intelligence, robotics and automation. The future will bring greater challenges, and will require an unprecedented commitment to human-centered, environmentally sound policies.

Second, it would affirm and build upon the current pre-requisites to decent work and humane migration policies.  An ethical agenda would:

  • Reduce social inequality and prioritize gender equality;
  • Prioritize quality, universal education, and lifelong learning: The ILO calls for a “universal entitlement to lifelong learning” that “enables people to acquire skills, upskill and reskill through their life course” (ILO 2019);
  • Promote migrant engagement with mediating institutions such as faith communities, labor unions and other civil society actors;
  • Offer refugee protection and migrant integration programs that benefit host communities (Peromingo and Pieterson 2018);
  • Replace “informal” with “formal” work that includes portable social protection;
  • Prevent the conditions driving forced migration, create conditions that allow safe return, provide greater “legal migration,” integration and third-country resettlement opportunities for those forced to uproot;
  • Invest in the health, education and empowerment of migrants and refugees, particularly of refugee women and children (Mottaghi 2018).
  • Allow forcibly displaced persons to work, to engage in business activities, to move within host countries, and to access services (Omata 2018, 19, 21);
  • Provide the forcibly displaced with access to jobs in the gig economy by bridging the digital divide (Hunt et al. 2018); and
  • Prioritize protection and reintegration programs for survivors of exploitation and trafficking.

States, the private sector, and international institutions should commit with renewed vigor to these needs, particularly to creating the conditions that allow persons to flourish in their communities and to integration strategies that build on the skills, talents and values of culturally diverse persons. One of these conditions is a “commitment to eliminate all forms of discrimination, including racism, xenophobia and intolerance, against migrants and their families” (UNGA 2018b, para. 15(f)).

Third, an ethical approach to migration and work would not treat automation, artificial intelligence or robotization as forces subject only to technological advances and financial resources. Instead, it would direct, harness and regulate technology to promote decent work, economic security, and the just distribution of financial gains. Technology would serve, rather than replace or subjugate human beings. A person-centered, “human in command” approach would allow human beings to make the ultimate decisions on work (ILO 2019, 43), and would seek to “improve and expand the quantity and quality of jobs in existing and emerging sectors” (ASEAN 2019). It would not privatize work-related decisions or cede them to market forces.

Fourth, more than 50 percent of the world lacks any social protection. Exacerbating this problem, aging populations in developed statues need protection but no longer contribute to these systems (ILO 2019, 35-36). The growing number of jobs without security and benefits, and imminent, large-scale worker displacement argues for a stronger social safety net, portable benefits and greater assistance to accommodate worker training, reskilling, displacement, and basic needs (CFR 2018, 4, 39, 50; OECD 2017). Migrants should be afforded access to “basic healthcare” and “national pension schemes” independent of status, and they should be permitted to transfer their “benefits in case of moving to another country” (Migrants and Refugees Section 2017, para 10).  Social protection coverage is a particular necessity for women, who experience lower labor force participation and employment rates (than men), wage differentials, higher likelihood of vulnerable forms of employment, and over-representation among “contributing family workers” (ILO 2017, 8).  ILO maintains that the future of work demands “a strong and responsive social protection system based on the principles of solidarity and risk sharing, which supports people’s needs over the life cycle” (ILO 2019, 11).

Fifth, states, business leaders, labor unions, and civil society need to prepare, educate, and train their members to compete in the global labor market, wherever decent jobs exist and whatever skills they may require. Of particular importance will be the ability to adapt and to think critically. This will require that workers be trained to meet the changing demands of their jobs and be provided with new skills that offer pipelines to better jobs. As the SDGs provide: “All people … should have access to life-long learning opportunities that help them acquire the knowledge and skills needed to exploit opportunities and to participate fully in society” (UN 2015, para. 25). This need will be particularly acute in developing countries whose residents will be the hardest hit by these changes (MGI 2016, 51).  In addition, formal instruction in schools and universities needs to be better targeted to “actual job opportunities” and become more adept at instilling in students the ability to “think critically and to solve problems” (CFR 2018, 26).

A related priority will be to reduce the educational attainment gap between migrant and native-born children in developed countries (MGI 2016, 87). Access to postsecondary education is crucially important since “occupations that require a college education or advanced degree will grow over the next decade and beyond, whereas employment in occupations requiring only a high school education or below will decline” (CFR 2018, 14).

The status quo for large percentages of the world’s workers and migrants falls far short of international law, human rights and religious principles and standards.

Lifelong learning will be necessary to respond to rapid changes in jobs due to technological advances, and to fill new jobs created by technology. Planning, creativity, management of others, and relational skills that robots do not have will remain in high demand.  Automation and robotization will also require: (1) “technical skills” to “facilitate problem-solving and innovation,” particularly in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) areas; (2) vocational skills “to deploy, operate and maintain new technologies;” and (3) “non-cognitive social and behavioural skills” that provide laborers with the resilience to engage in life-long learning (ILO 2018b). More training in “basic digital skills” is also essential (CFR 2018, 14).  It will be particularly important to train “women, people with disabilities, elderly and youth …. on technological skills and digital platforms … to facilitate their access to decent work” (ASEAN 2019, para. 2).

Sixth, states should remove barriers that prevent migrants from obtaining decent work, such as antiquated credentialing and hiring policies (ILO 2018b; CFR 2018, 4), and immigration policies that make it impossible for necessary workers to migrate legally (Kerwin and Warren 2017, 308-10).  They should “enact legislation that enables the recognition, transfer and further development of the formal skills of all migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees residing in the host country” (Migrants and Refugees Section 2017, para. 12.) They should also align their immigration admission policies, with their labor needs, family unity imperatives, and international law commitments.  In this way, migration policies will minimize irregular migration with all its negative consequences, particularly for migrants.

Seventh, the rapid pace of change in the global labor market requires that there be accessible, trustworthy and timely information on available jobs, wages, benefits, required skills, credentials and living arrangements. States need to collect and use data on their labor market needs in order to set and adjust their immigrant admission levels and categories (Kerwin and Warren 2017, 308-09; MGI 2016, 19). Educators and students need information on the global labor market in order to develop and pursue course work and learning opportunities tailored to available job opportunities. Businesses need this information to train their workers and to fill the positions that will allow them to succeed in the global economy; labor unions need it to protect and empower their members; and potential migrants need it to invest in securing necessary skills and education, and to make informed decisions on whether and where to migrate. Beyond that, migrants need reliable, online sources of information in real time on travel options, safe routes, shelter, housing, consular offices and legal providers (MGI 2016, 81).

While data on labor market needs and outcomes has increased in recent years, much of it is not publicly available or easily accessible (CFR 2018, 32).  A Council of Foreign Relations’ Independent Task Force recommended “a large-scale effort to improve gathering and disseminating data on labor market needs, trends, and outcomes” in the United States in order to “empower students and employees and reduce labor market frictions” (ibid., 84). The task force also urged the federal government to “partner with companies that are harnessing labor market data to ensure the timeliest updating and release of relevant labor market information” (ibid., 85).

Forced migration presents additional challenges. As it stands, there are abundant annual reports, indices, state performance rankings and datasets on development, human rights, the rule of law, civil rights, business friendliness, corruption, transparency, human capital, state fragility, poverty, and religious liberty (Kerwin and Warren 2017 310-311).  States, regional and international bodies should rely on this data to inform development and diplomatic interventions that respond to the conditions that force persons to uproot; to anticipate and plan for large-scale migration; and to set humanitarian and immigration priorities for refugees and others in desperate circumstances.

Eighth, states should commit to strong, inclusive and enforced labor standards that apply with equal force to workplaces such as fishing boats and households that may be difficult for officials to access.[16] Migrant-dense occupations like domestic work and caregiving often do not operate within formal legal frameworks and, as a result, they experience high levels of worker abuse and exploitation (ILO 2018a).  Labor standards should fully apply to these occupations, including through ratification of ILO Conventions such as C188 – Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188) and C189 – Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189). States should also commit to reducing the number of workers in the informal economy. Labor unions should be strengthened as a central element of a decent work agenda. Not only do unions protect the interests and rights of their members, but they can also identify potential areas of innovation and push for high-performance work systems. Conversely, the decline in collective representation contributes to income inequality, less participatory democracy, and narrowed decision-making (ILO 2019, 41).

In addition, the corporate sector has a special responsibility to “orient the institution of business toward a set of behaviours that foster the integral development of people” (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace 2014, para. 72).  In particular, businesses should “promote personal responsibility, innovation, fair pricing, just compensation, humane job design, responsible environmental practices and socially responsible (or ethical) investment,” and they should implement just policies on “hiring, firing, ownership, board governance, employee training, leadership formation, supplier relations and a host of other issues” (ibid.).

Migration is a timeless anti-poverty strategy, and can contribute significantly to receiving and sending states. Migrants should never be viewed as a “problem” to be solved.

Ninth, different policy interventions will be necessary to address the needs of different groups of forcibly displaced persons. Of overriding importance, states should grant migrant children access “to primary and secondary schooling at the same standard as citizens and independently of their legal status” (Migrants and Refugees Section 2017, para. 9). Refugee and other forcibly displaced children suffer from the effects of war, conflict, upheaval and significant gaps in schooling. Pressing needs include “accelerated education programs, language training programs, ongoing tutoring and learning support, and psychosocial services” (JRS 2018).  In addition, states should permit refugees to work legally and afford them access to finance and capital for their entrepreneurial activities, which will allow them to support themselves and their families and to contribute more fully to their communities (Betts, Omata and Bloom 2017, 726-27).

However, the broader need will be to anticipate, mitigate and respond effectively to the conditions that lead to forced migration, such as youth unemployment, global health threats, natural disaster, conflict, terrorism, violent extremism and humanitarian crises (UN 2015, para. 14).  Another challenge will be to maximize the use of the traditional durable solutions for refugees, particularly safe and voluntary return, integration in host communities, and resettlement in third countries, including through private sponsorship. In addition, states should significantly expand access to legal migration pathways for the forcibly displaced based on employment, family ties, and humanitarian considerations. In this way, labor migration can become a vehicle for humanitarian protection. Of greatest concern is the inability of most of the world’s refugees to return home in the foreseeable future, if ever. As a result, protracted refugee situations have become the norm and “durable solutions” cannot keep pace with the volume of displaced persons.

Tenth, the international community should build on the insights and successes of the state-led Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) and related processes. Epistemic injustice has long characterized programs for migrants. A central theme of these processes – as well as the GCM and GCR – is that migrants, if empowered to do so, can make far greater contributions to host communities through their entrepreneurship, work, family life, participation in faith communities, and political engagement. They can become “agents of their own development” (CELAM, para. 385). [17]  Migrants also contribute to their communities of origin through remittances, relief efforts, community infrastructure investments, and sharing their expertise, training and knowledge.

The GFMD has identified numerous win-win policies and programs that enhance the benefits of migration to destination communities and that seek to maximize the contributions of migrants to their communities of origin. Legal immigration and integration policies, for example, enhance the development-related benefits of migration, and reduce its tensions and negative consequences. As much as any prior international process, the GMFD has attempted to shift the perception of migration from being a problem, to seeing it as a form and source of development. In an important paradigm shift, it accepts migration “as a given in a globalized world,” and focuses on “how improved integration can yield bigger dividends” (MGI 2016, 16).

As a corollary, strong, inclusive development policies of the kind outlined in the SDGs – which prioritize gender equality, education, employment, universal access to health care, and sustainable economic growth – make forced displacement less likely, integration more likely to be successful, and investment in host communities more impactful (Kerwin 2013).

Eleventh, immigrant integration will remain an overarching metric of the success of labor migration.  Integration benefits immigrants, their families and their communities. Better integration outcomes in the areas of education, housing, healthcare and employment could increase the economic contributions of immigrants by $1 trillion each year (MGI 2016, 77). Integration policies need to address these issues holistically. Migrants account for a disproportionate share of the labor force growth in many developed countries (ibid, 39). However, to their detriment, migrants earn 20 to 30 percent less than comparable native-born workers (ibid., 9).  Strong integration policies would increase economic output (ibid, 13).

Twelfth, states should prioritize strong and coordinated migration management policies, which foster decent jobs and economic development. They should also collaborate on regional and international systems of migration governance. Otherwise, “safe, orderly and regular migration” will prove to be a chimera. Migration is an issue of “major relevance for the development of countries of origin, transit and destination” (UN 2015, para. 29).  Ninety-five countries have seen more than 10 percent of their citizens emigrate (MGI 2016, 35).  These numbers will likely increase given the changes in the global job market and other trends. In short, the need for more effective migration management and governance has never been greater.

V. Closing Reflection

This paper outlines a person-centered vision of international migration and labor inspired by human rights principles, international law, and Catholic social teaching. As has been widely recognized, migration is a timeless anti-poverty strategy, and can contribute significantly to receiving and sending states. Migrants should never be viewed as a “problem” to be solved.

Decent work, in turn, represents a human right, a requirement of the common good, and a way to achieve “fulfillment as a human being” (John Paul II 1981, para. 9). To the ILO, it constitutes a central aspiration of men and women. In Catholic social thought, it is a pre-requisite to human flourishing and integral human development.

The concept of a universal or border-less common good speaks to the interdependence of nations and the impossibility of solving the world’s most pressing challenges unilaterally (Hollenbach 2016, 151-52; Kerwin 2009a, 104-105). International migration is one of those challenges: “a social phenomenon of epoch-making proportions that requires bold, forward-looking policies of international cooperation,” and that no nation can effectively address by itself (Benedict XVI 2009, para. 62).  The future of work is another.

The challenges facing international workers and migrants underscore a set of conditions – education, job training, timely information, security, legal migration options, lifelong learning opportunities, portable benefits, housing, and healthcare – that need to be universally available in order for all to thrive in the global economy. These conditions provide the foundation for creating ethical, person-centered migration and labor systems at a time of rapid change and uncertainty.[18]  Pope John Paul II famously characterized solidarity not as “a feeling of vague compassions or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far,” but as a “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (John Paul II 1987, para. 38). The need for solidarity to address these immense and urgent challenges has never been greater.


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[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 paper 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, titled Rethinking Labour: Ethical Reflections on the Future of Work.

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

[3] Overall, the percent of the world’s population living in developed regions has steadily fallen since 1950, from 32 to 16 percent, and it is projected to decline to 13 percent by 2050 (Chamie 2019).

[4] UN DESA, Living life in the city: UN DESA announces latest trends, UN DESA VOICE, June 2018,

[5] In India, 92 percent of the workforce participates in the informal economy. Social movements and labor unions, in turn, have fought for legal recognition of domestic servants as workers, a ban on child labor, social security for domestic workers, and the prevention of trafficking of children from rural communities to cities (Fernandes 2018, 173).

[6] Migrant Workers Convention, Article 16(2).

[7] Laurie Bedford, How Automation Will Transform Farming, SUCCESSFUL FARMINIG, November 29, 2017,; Editorial Board, US Farms Can’t Compete Without Foreign Workers: The visa system for temporary agricultural workers is broken, BLOOMBERG, June 1, 2018,

[8] Immigrants and their children improve old-age dependency ratios, and support national pension systems that are on or nearly on a pay-as-you-go basis (MGI 2016, 10, 65)

[9] Similarly, work occurs locally, but it often affects persons beyond state borders.

[10] UN General Assembly, International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, 18 December 1990, A/RES/45/158 [hereinafter “Migrant Workers Convention], Article 8.

[11] Although often viewed as an antidote to migration, development assistance to migrant sending communities can lead to increased migration in the short-run.

[12] UN General Assembly, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 189, p. 137.

[13] Pope Pius VI called Rerum Novarum the “Magna Carta upon which all Christian activity in the social field ought to be based” (Pope Pius VI 1931, para. 39).

[14] Pope Francis has argued that sustainable development requires “care of our mother earth, without which there is no possible work” (Francis 2019a).

[15] An independent task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations similarly concluded that “[e]very American should have the opportunity and resources needed to prepare for and pursue work that offers them a fair chance at both economic security and meaningful contributions to society” (CFR 2018, 10).

[16] Labor standard enforcement can prevent unscrupulous employers from depressing wages and working conditions by pitting immigrant and native workers against each other (Fine and Lyons 2017).

[17] The Catholic organizing principle of subsidiary supports the imperative to push down and vest decision-making in the closest, most affected communities.

[18] Such conditions can also obviate the need to migrate, promote integration, and safeguard against the worst forms of human exploitation like trafficking, slavery, and gross labor abuses.

Author Names

Donald Kerwin

Date of Publication March 16, 2020