Co-ordinating social security for international migrant workers

Co-ordinating social security for international migrant workers

As we mark International Migrants Day on 18 December, the increased flow of international migration underlines the need for improved data and data sharing in respect of population movements. ISSA’s work in these areas will contribute to extending effective access to social security.

Who are international migrant workers?

The United Nations estimate the number of international migrants to be over 250 million, and growing. Close to two-thirds of this number are workers, of which slightly over half are male. International migrant workers are those that change country of residence typically for short and longer periods of work, but also on a permanent basis. All movements of workers across national frontiers affect the operations of social security systems. The key challenge is how to ensure that these migrant workers get coverage and accrue future social security protection. In the first instance, this requires coordinating the work of social security administrations across national jurisdictions. In practical terms this necessitates the development of specific legal instruments, the most important amongst which are bilateral social security agreements. Multilateral social security agreements among several signatory countries are less commonplace.

As international legal instruments, such agreements should reflect a number of principles including:

  • the equality of treatment of migrant workers;
  • benefits should be paid to the worker by a social security system in one country only;
  • workers’ acquired rights are protected and portable; and
  • the mechanisms for and the financing of the payment of benefits from different sources is detailed fully and carried out effectively.

Knowledge sharing

For some countries, a considerable amount of information is known about bilateral and multilateral social security agreements.

However, often the information is less readily available. Global information regarding the exact number and nature of bilateral and multilateral social security agreements, and between which state parties these have been concluded, remains incomplete.

ISSA leads the way

To address this information gap, the International Social Security Association (ISSA) is undertaking a survey of its global membership of social security institutions in over 150 countries. The responses to this survey will be used to identify where social security coverage exists for migrant workers, where coverage gaps exists and where improved access to coverage is possible. A challenge in some countries relates to identifying migrant workers engaged in the informal economy. The data will support international efforts to realize universal social protection and meet the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals agenda, and SDG 1.3 in particular.

For agreements to function at the bilateral level, the effective exchange of data between participating countries is required. This presents a challenge. A barrier to efficient data exchange is the current absence of standards and reusable solutions available to social security institutions. To meet this need, the ISSA is also working on developing a ready-to-use data exchange standard as well as generic support tools, which will facilitate the implementation of business processes for international and other agreements.

“As more people are working abroad, it is important that social security systems increase their collaboration to provide protection across borders. Through our ground-breaking work, we will be able to share valuable knowledge and develop practical tools that can ensure effective solutions for migrant workers and society at large”, said ISSA Secretary General Hans-Horst Konkolewsky.

Extending coverage to migrant workers

The ISSA Guidelines on Administrative Solutions for Coverage Extension and the ISSA Handbook on the extension of social security to migrant workers shows why national social security systems should extend coverage to migrant workers and their dependants. In addition to meeting people’s basic needs and social protection requirements, there are important advantages for social security systems and society:

  • Social security systems provide essential benefits and services to help mitigate the risks faced by what are often vulnerable sections of the working population. There is an affirmed human rights reason for extending coverage to such workers;
  • Wider social security coverage enhances social cohesion, facilitates economic growth and strengthens public support for social security schemes;
  • The coverage of migrant workers may be seen as important for equity reasons by the non-migrant population (for example, in the case of overseas-posted workers);
  • Migrant workers may help improve the demographic situation of a country and are often net contributors to the social security system over their lifetime;
  • Providing access to coverage for migrant workers strengthens efforts to formalize the informal economy, encourages and supports the mobility of employees and provides safeguards to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers.

Differences in access to protection

As a heterogeneous population group, migrant workers have different levels of access to portable social security. Some workers may have protection under a bilateral or multilateral social security arrangement between their country of origin and host country. Some may have access to social security benefits without bilateral agreements, while others may not have access to old-age pensions and other long-term benefits, but have access to non-portable short-term benefits such as health care. Others yet may have very limited or no access to social security in the host country.

With growing international migration flows, knowledge sharing about international social security agreements should support efforts to address inequities in access to coverage. Recognizing that the development and implementation of international social security agreements is a long process, the ISSA’s decision to compile data on international agreements is a welcome and necessary initiative.