Policy Brief: Climate Change and Labour Migration: Challenges for Decent Work and Opportunities for a ‘Just Transition’

By Ciara McQuillan Bridson


In his opening speech at the Governing Body (GB) Meeting this March, the ILO Director General, Guy Ryder, highlighted the theme of uncertainty. Uncertainty, he argued, is one of the underlying concerns pertaining to the GB’s discussion and agenda. It therefore makes sense that the agenda includes the issue of climate change and its impact on labour. Climate change is a matter of great concern due to the uncertainty that it brings; to a large extent climate change is unpredictable, while its potential effects can be devastating. Thus, it is imperative that its impacts are prevented or managed as much as possible. Inherent to the challenge presented by climate change are its effects on the natural world. Rising sea levels are increasing the risk of flooding and environmental degradation is destroying traditional forms of agricultural employment, both displacing workers and fuelling labour migration. Labour migration due to climate change is therefore becoming an increasingly important issue for the ILO.

The Importance of Labour Migration in Responding to Climate Change and Promoting Sustainability

In accordance with the Paris Agreement and the COP22, the ILO endeavors not only to combat the negative impacts of climate change, but to also take advantage of it through the opportunities it presents. One such opportunity is the potential for a “just transition to environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all”, which is high on the ILO’s agenda at the moment. The GB’s document outlining the item “Addressing the impact of climate change on labour” highlights the implications of climate change for decent work, including both opportunities and challenges, and the need for a ‘just transition’ framework. Forced labour migration is cited in this document as one of the notable effects of climate change on decent work and thus as a challenge for social justice. It is emphasized that forced labour migration may also exacerbate problems inherent to job sectors that are already typified by informality (such as limited decent work and limited worker rights), due to the location of the areas being directly affected by climate change. In 2014, 19.3 million people were forced to relocate due to natural hazards destroying their home. Most of these people live in the Global South and areas of the developing world that do not have adequate resources to respond to the threats of climate change, even though they are most at risk from such threats. As climate change progresses, these areas will continue to experience the worst of it. Migration is one of the most common coping mechanisms for residents of affected areas (often because it is forced), and therefore it is a priority of the ILO to utilise the benefits of labour migration to help communities adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, while moving towards sustainability at the same time.

Since the COP21 and the 2013 International Labour Conference, the ILO has adopted five methods for tackling climate change. The first is to increase understanding of the links between climate change and labour markets, allowing government, employers and workers to anticipate potential impacts and plan for them. The second it to facilitate mitigation of negative impacts, which can be through education, training and technical support to help governments adapt their countries’ skill sets and promote green jobs. The third is promotion of adaptation measures, for example programmes for public investment, micro-insurance and social protection in response to crisis situations. The fourth and fifth methods are to mobilise the ILO tripartite constituents and facilitate consensus building, which will enable knowledge building and proactivity. Each of these methods is applied in the ILO’s work towards sustainable development and a ‘just transition’. Each therefore incorporates the issue of labour migration, since it is so integral to sustainable development. For example, increasing understanding of labour migration is important for many developing countries so that the issue can be accepted and better handled, while many negative impacts of climate change can be both mitigated and adapted to through the effective use of labour migration. This includes planning for inevitable labour migration after a crisis by, for example, creating job opportunities in nearby or alternative areas. The ILO has been using the labour migration issue as part of its work in combatting climate change for many years now, and it has steadily developed into a force for the promotion of sustainable development as well.

The ILO on Labour Migration in Pacific Island Countries and Asia

The Pacific region of the world is at huge risk from immediate consequences of climate change. The region is experiencing increasing numbers of forced labour emigration due to the frequency of natural changes such as tropical storms and acidification of oceans destroying homes and livelihoods. Despite the severity of the issue, governments in Pacific Island countries generally have limited resources to deal with the migration issue, and therefore also have few policies or frameworks in place for it. Between 2013 and 2015, the ILO implemented a project in three Pacific Island countries, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru, to enhance their capacity to deal with climate change-induced labour migration through effective schemes, policy frameworks and knowledge building.

In Kiribati, the impacts of environmental problems, such as storm surges, are exacerbated by the lack of employment opportunities on the island. The ILO, together with UNESCAP and UNDP, launched the Pacific Climate Change and Migration project to work with Kiribati’s Ministry of Labour and Human Resource Development to address the positive and negative impacts of climate change-induced labour on the island. Through this scheme, a national labour migration policy was implemented which brought together civil society institutions, social partners, training groups and government agencies, and gave them a common vision and framework. The national labour migration policy was effective because it allowed institutions to recognise the importance of labour migration in addressing the deficit of decent employment opportunities on the island. Workers were then able to train and become skilled, and thus have a better chance of finding work after they migrate instead of being forced to migrate without the skills or knowledge to enter into decent employment elsewhere. The ILO’s work in Kiribati and other Pacific countries has been very successful, so it must be ensured that the knowledge that has been built is shared through online platforms so that other countries at risk from climate change can do the same.

The 2016 edition of ‘Building an inclusive future with decent work: Towards sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific’ exemplifies how the ILO has effectively incorporated the labour migration issue into its efforts towards sustainable development. It specifically notes the lack of decent employment (if any) for migrant workers in Asia and the Pacific, including high recruitment costs, risk of exploitation and wage discrimination. The ILO developed a strategy to resolve this, based on international labour standards and guided by the 2006 ILO Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration, and that corresponds distinctly with the ILO’s five established methods against climate change. The strategy aims to provide country-specific services to promote just and effective migration policies, to provide governments with the knowledge and mechanisms to implement such policies and to enforce worker rights, to increase data collection and tripartite dialogue, to support the most vulnerable workers and to facilitate regional and inter-country partnerships for good practice sharing. This strategy has seen overwhelmingly positive results. Huge advances in legislative protection for workers’ rights have been seen in countries such as Thailand, where in 2014 they adopted the Ministerial Regulation on Sea Fisheries Work. In Cambodia, Myanmar, and other countries, trade unions, CSOs, and government job centres have established migrant resource centres, from which thousands of migrant workers area able to seek support. Such improvements are enabling countries who are experiencing negative effects of climate change on labour to respond to such impacts effectively and sustainably. It is important to establish the linkages between labour migration as a response to climate change, and labour migration as a means towards sustainable economies and societies. The ILO’s work is evidence that effective labour migration policy is able to handle both climate change and sustainability together.


Although the schemes that the ILO has undertaken so far to handle climate change-induced labour migration have been effective, the issue remains prevalent and mishandled in many countries. Action recommended by the GB item, “Addressing the impact of climate change on labour” focuses, quite rightly, on continuing to facilitate a just transition to environmentally sustainable economies and societies. Promotion of further discussion and education about the effects of climate change on labour is encouraged as part of this just transition and particularly in developing countries, but the ILO’s Green Initiative must also make sure that it works with developed countries that are struggling to cope with labour immigration as well. Recent evidence clearly demonstrates that the ILO’s work in helping developing countries handle climate change-induced labour migration is effective, and that it contributes nicely to the ILO’s objective of sustainable development. Nevertheless, despite the undeniable progress, the effects of climate change are increasingly being felt, and causing more problems for governments and workers in developing countries in particular. Work needs to continue and focus must remain on the labour migration issue. We can rest assured from the ILO’s decisions at this GB session that this is happening, and that the ILO’s response to climate change will continue effectively through utilising the phenomenon of labour migration.


Ciara McQuillan Bridson is studying for an MA European and Global Affairs, a two-year collaborative programme with the University of Sheffield’s Department of Politics and the School of Government at the Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali (LUISS), Italy.



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