Unions see global rise in illegal workers due to crisis

MANILA (Reuters) - The number of illegal migrant workers across the world is expected to rise as the worst financial crisis in decades makes it harder for people to find work in their home countries, the head of an international trade union group warned on Monday.

“We see an increase of people desperate to make an income and working without documentation in many nations,” said Sharan Burrow, president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which groups unions from 155 countries and territories.

The impact of the financial crisis on migrant workers would be felt in the next six to 18 months, but some governments are already studying possible tighter immigration rules, Burrow said.

There are now up to 40 million illegal migrant workers across the world, a fourth of which are in the United States, she added.

“In California, the economy will collapse before breakfast if the undocumented workers stop their labor. In London, it would collapse before lunch and sometime before dinner in Europe,” she said.

“We have to find a new set of rules, a global architecture for protection that guarantees equal treatment and expands regular migration channels,” Burrow said, adding that even those migrant workers which have legal documents do not necessarily get equal treatment and opportunities.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) has forecast that up to 20 million jobs worldwide may be lost by the end of 2009 due to the economic downturn brought about by the financial crisis.

“The number of working poor living on less than a dollar a day could rise by some 40 million and those at $2 a day by more than 100 million,” Burrow said, citing ILO data.

Unlike the 1997/1998 Asian financial crisis which hit mostly male-dominated jobs in the construction and mining sectors, Burrow warned female workers are now more at risk, particularly those in the retail, tourism, caregiving and service-related jobs.

Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, chief executive of the Philippines’ oldest conglomerate Ayala Corp, asked governments to work with civil society groups and provide safety nets for migrant workers to help them cope with the crisis.

“We should go beyond economic assistance by protecting the rights of workers,” Zobel de Ayala told reporters after addressing the forum, saying local firms benefit from workers’ migration.

“Workers remittances have strengthened our banking system and spurred local consumption,” Zobel de Ayala said. “It is therefore in our best and mutual interest to make sure that this continues ways which serve global economic development and growth.”

Ban Ki-Moon, U.N. secretary-general, was due to address the forum on Wednesday when a set of recommendations from the civil society meetings would be presented to representatives from 150 governments across the world.

Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Rosemarie Francisco