Book review: Martin Ruhs’ “The Price of Rights”

Typically, countries form immigration policies by determining the number of migrants and asking how skilled migrants are. In Australia, our migration policy is driven by a focus on highly skilled migrants and a proclivity to err on the side of large immigration programs. In some other countries, such as the Gulf States, the focus is on low- and unskilled migrants.

Martin Ruhs asks us to incorporate a third theme into migration policy – migrant rights. His book, the Price of Rights: Regulating International Labour Migration, explores this topic.

Ruhs’ begins by looking at the Convention of Migrant Workers. Only 47 countries have ratified this Convention, a stark comparison to other human rights treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of Children where the number is closer to 200. His explanation for this is the rights included in the Convention of Migrant Workers have explicit costs. These costs form the basis of his hypotheses:

1) Labor immigration programs that target higher-skilled migrants are more open to labor immigration than those targeting lower-skilled migrants;

2) Programs that target higher-skilled migrants grant migrants more rights than programs that target lower-skilled migrants; and,

3) There can be a trade-off (a negative relationship) between openness and some of the rights of some migrant workers admitted to high-income countries–that is, greater openness to admitting migrant workers will be associated with relatively fewer rights for migrants and vice versa.

Ruhs tests these hypotheses by creating two indexes to measure labour migration openness and the provision of rights. He applies these indexes to 104 labour migration programs in 47 countries. He finds strong support for hypothesis one and two. His ‘trade-off’ hypothesis is also supported however there are some caveats.

For the record, this is an excellent book. Ruhs is right to place migrant rights in the discussion about migration policy so vividly. In my experience in the Australian migration bureaucracy, there was a focus on the provision of rights to migrants. Governments understand exploitation occurs and take action to limit the damage. Yet this focus was clearly a secondary consideration compared to the overall numbers and the policy settings regarding the skill level of migrants.

Further, in the global discourse of migration, numbers and skills dominates. This is reflected in most of the academic literature where studies focus on economic benefits and social implications of more or less. His findings show migrant rights are an important part of the discussion and the rights afforded to migrants should be a core consideration of policy makers.

However I would like to quibble with a couple of things. His analysis only covers labour migration programs which exist solely for labour. Therefore students and working holiday makers, family and free-movement area (like the EU and the Australia-New Zealand agreement) are not analysed. The problem is that these migrants very often have work rights. In Australia, there are close to one million students, working holiday makers and New Zealand citizens at any one time. While not all of these migrants will work, they can work and they are the equivalent of ~8 per cent of the labour force.

This causes a problem for Ruhs. His finding that high income countries are more open to higher skilled migrants does not account for the fact high income countries, like Australia, operate a variety of labour migration programs. Perhaps Australia is not open to lower skilled migrants because they are already here, albeit under different visa categories which Ruhs has not incorporated. The same may go for the U.S., where there is a substantial population of irregular migrants and family migrants, who tend to be less skilled than labour migrants.

Further, Ruhs has missed at least one labour migration program: the 457 visa program. He does not claim to measure every single labour migration program in the world but for a country such as Australia, this is a major mistake. The four Australian migration programs Ruhs does analyse are, combined, smaller in total number of migrants than the 457 visa program.

Despite this, this book opens a much needed discussion. The provision of rights to migrants creates a dilemma: do you grant migrants lots of rights but only to a (relatively) few migrants or do you accept lots of migrants while restricting their rights? Of course, not every right will directly impede the number of migrants who work in high income countries, but the cumulative effect of rights acts to limit the total number of migrants. Ruhs’ answer is to focus on a core set of migrant rights. Peter Mares outlines his ethical considerations here. I disagree with a number of his conclusions yet his main consideration – an increase in the number of temporary migrant workers – is a significant position for a researcher centred on migrant rights.

Here in Australia, an argument about more or less immigration will occur seemingly every couple of years. However the lack of understanding the impact of migrant rights has on migration policies means this debate is often shallow. This book would go down a treat within the Immigration department and within policy makers interested in a larger population.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the human rights side of migration. Unlike many Ruhs’ has undertaken primary research and finds a complex situation. His solutions will be confrontational to some, however they are to be commended. Further, anyone interested in the overall flow of global migration would do well to understand how migrant rights plays a pivotal role.


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