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Migrant worker numbers rise by five million: ILO

A Vietnamese migrant worker harvests rice in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand.
UN Women/Pornvit Visitoran
A Vietnamese migrant worker harvests rice in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand.

Migrant worker numbers rise by five million: ILO

Migrants and Refugees

The number of international migrant workers has increased from 164 to 169 million, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said on Wednesday, noting a marked rise in the number of young people seeking opportunities abroad, too.

A new report from the ILO indicates that migrant workers made up one in 20 of the world’s workforce in 2019, often carrying out key functions in critical sectors from health care to transportation and food processing. 

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Key contribution 

“We have seen that in a number of regions migrant workers represent a sizeable share of the workforce; they are contributing of course to the economies and societies of their host countries, but also to their home countries through remittances,” said Manuela Tomei, Director of the ILO Conditions of Work and Equality Department. 

Despite their value to the global economy, the UN body warned that many migrant workers face uncertainty at work, a situation made worse by the pandemic. 

The only opportunities they often find are “temporary, informal or unprotected jobs”, leaving them exposed to a greater risk of insecurity, layoffs and worsening working conditions, ILO maintained. 

“The COVID-19 crisis has intensified these vulnerabilities, particularly for women migrant workers, as they are over-represented in low-paid and low-skilled jobs and have limited access to social protection and fewer options for support services,” according to the ILO study, which is based on data from 189 countries. 

Mainly male preserve 

A full 58 per cent are men - 99 million compared to 70 million women - and most find work in service industries, followed by manufacturing, which employs almost two in three migrants. 

Another seven per cent of foreign workers carry out farming jobs.   

Substantial gender differences exist between the sectors with a higher number of women migrant workers in services including health and domestic work. This may be partly explained by a growing labour demand for care workers, ILO said, adding that manufacturing remains male-dominated. 

Rich country pull factor 

More than two in three migrant workers are concentrated in high-income countries, with 63.8 million in Europe and Central Asia, and another 43.3 million in the Americas.  

The Arab States, Asia and the Pacific each host about 24 million migrant workers, while Africa has 13.7 million migrant workers, representing 8.1 per cent of the total.  

The increased share of 15 to 24-year-old workers - from 8.3 per cent in 2017 to 10.0 per cent in 2019 – likely reflects high unemployment rates in many developing countries, and the rising demographic trend, ILO said. 

Despite the uptick in youth migrant workers, the large majority of migrant workers (86.5 per cent) are adults aged 25 to 64. 

Highlighting the value to countries of compiling reliable statistics on their migrant labour workforce, ILO insisted that this would help them “respond to shifts in labour supply and demand, stimulate innovation and sustainable development, and transfer and update skills”.