Price of Rights review

  • Wayne Palmer. 2014. Review of The Price of Rights: Regulating International Labour Migration,by Martin Ruhs, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2013Pp. 254. Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 23 (1): 127-128. See PDF

The Price of Rights makes a brave contribution to the debate on the ethics of immigration policy and the restrictions it imposes on the legal rights of migrant workers. Martin Ruhs persuasively shows that sending countries’ calls for high-income countries to admit more migrants and human rights advocates’ demands that migrants are given equal rights to citizens are objectives that have a negative relationship to one another. The central argument is that greater openness is possible if we accept the restriction of specific rights, namely voting rights, free choice of employment, equal access to public benefits, family reunion and permanent residence or citizenship.

Ruhs draws attention to what he calls a ‘blind-spot’ in the human rights approach to international labour migration that seeks to achieve equality of rights for migrant workers. This approach focuses on existing migrants but gives little consideration, if any, to those who are yet to migrate. Based on Ruhs’ analysis, greater rights for migrant workers would translate into more restricted admission regimes for employment. Ruhs claims that UN agencies and other organizations that advocate this approach have been reluctant to acknowledge this dilemma (pp. 9-10). This line of inquiry would be interesting to examine with a broader cross-section of migrant labour support groups, such as trade unions and service provision non-government organizations, to get a sense for where they put their premium: on openness or rights?

The idea of ‘choice under constraints’ introduces the notion that while states may pursue a policy objective, such as economic efficiency or national security, they are not entirely free to do so because of factors such as their capacity to control immigration. It is on the back of this that Ruhs proposes his hypothesis on the ‘negative relationship between openness and some migrant rights’ (p. 47). This conceptual framework provides us with the wherewithal to interpret data about the openness of temporary labour migration admission schemes and the legal rights they extend to migrants, which are discussed in Chapter Four.

The Price of Rights develops indexes to measure the openness of immigration programs and the rights of migrants to enable comparison across 46 countries. The openness index includes items for quotas, demand-side restrictions, such as whether labour migrants are required to have a job offer in order to be eligible for a visa, and supply-side restrictions, such as skills requirements. The rights index is more complicated. It has five components (civil and political rights, economic rights, social rights, residency rights and family rights). Ruhs concludes from his analysis of this data that ‘immigration programs that target the admission of higher-skilled workers are more open and grant migrants more rights than programs targeting lower-skilled workers’ (p. 6). Moreover, these indexes provide an evidence-based assessment that migrants are more likely to receive economic and political rights than social, residency and family rights. The rights index in particular offers a useful starting point to examine the relationship between rights and other labour migration phenomena such as breaking conditions of stay.

Another core strength of this study is the separation it makes between ‘migrant rights in practice … [and] rights migrants should have from a moral/ethical point of view’ (p. 2). This distinction enables Ruhs to first determine what rights migrants currently have under temporary labour migrant admission programs and then identify which rights could be acceptably restricted in exchange for more open admission policies. In Ruhs’ view, core rights include civil and political ones – bar voting in elections. He proposes that any restriction of other rights needs to be evidenced-based – in other words that access to those rights creates a net cost for the receiving country. In this way, Ruhs offers a model for immigration regimes that may result in more open admission policies and greater international labour migration.

But the model is not intended to be a one-size-fits-all tool to liberalize international labour migration. If applied to foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, this model would restrict labour migrants to reproductive labour rather than to a particular employer as is currently the case. The live-in requirement would have to be reassessed as well as the basis for excluding this group of migrants from the statutory minimum wage. But it would be unlikely that the Immigration Department would let labour migrants sponsor family and dependents to stay in Hong Kong on the minimum wage after qualifying for permanent residence. On this basis alone, it is predictable that policymakers in Hong Kong would respond by imposing quotas or other kinds of restrictions, such as higher age, education and skills ceilings, serving to limit access to the labour market rather than open it.

The promotion of a compromise on migrant rights is one of the most difficult elements of Ruhs’ main argument to accept – perhaps for political reasons more than anything else. It is this aspect that will be the source of criticism from those whose interests are at stake (particularly labour migrant support groups). These groups will certainly see it as acceptance of the status quo. Nonetheless, policymakers in high-income countries – the main audience of this book – ought to put this title on their reading list because it offers a kind of manual to understand the relationships between openness, skills and migrant rights, while offering an alternative starting point for a debate about how best to accommodate the competing demands to open up access to their labour markets and grant migrants equal rights. If, however, they choose to go down this route, there would certainly be international relations implications, including reactions of sending countries that do not entirely agree with the prerogative of receiving states to always determine what happens.


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