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National Interests and Migrants’ Rights: The Non-Ratification of the ICMW by Singapore and Canada




Zachariah Su


On 1 July 2003, the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All
Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICMW) entered into force after finally reaching
the threshold of twenty ratifying states since its initial signature in 1990. Despite standing as the most comprehensive treaty in the field of migration (Pécoud 2009, 332), the ICMW has been ratified by fewer than 50 states as of 2015, making it the least ratified treaty among all major human rights treaties (Ruhs 2012, 1281). A quick survey of the ratifying states shows a list of states comprised of developing, migrant-sending countries (Vucetic 2007, 404). Among states which have yet to ratify the convention, however, are a collection of countries which vary in regime type and records of previous ratification of international human rights conventions. Countries with authoritarian political systems such as Singapore, in keeping with their lower proclivity to ratify and sign international human rights treaties, have more predictably failed to ratify the ICMW. On the other hand, a host of liberal democratic countries with proven track records in ratifying numerous international human rights treaties such as Canada have similarly ignored the ICMW. How then have the vast majority of affluent liberal democracies found themselves in the same camp as a set of authoritarian states in continuing to fail to officially recognize the issue of migrant workers’ rights on an international level? An underlying research question which flows from this concern then is: Why is the ICMW so lowly ratified among migrant-receiving states?
This thesis compares the policies and politics of Singaporean and Canadian non-ratification
of the ICMW. The argument forwarded by this thesis is that Singaporean and Canadian national
interests, largely understood as economic interests, continue to dictate that migrant workers,
especially low-skilled migrant workers, are seen as functional, economic entities serving an
instrumental role in filling up labour shortages in the national economy. Furthermore, I argue that such an interest is ultimately negotiated within a domestic power configuration in which citizen voters in the form of employers, recruitment agencies and other private actors are better able to forward their own interests vis-à-vis the interests of non-citizen migrant workers. This in turn results in a citizen-, employer-oriented policy setting in which the rights of migrants are
systematically subjugated in favour of the economic interests of citizen voters and of government actors themselves. As such, given the functional, instrumental view of migrant workers, and the longevity of such a view within both Singapore and Canada’s citizen-oriented policy setting, both countries have failed to ratify the ICMW as the treaty’s express aims of treating migrant workers not merely as economic entities through the accordance of a number of labour and human rights is inherently at odds with the preferences and practices of both countries.

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Economic sectors

General relevance - all sectors

Target groups


Geographical focuses

Federal and Singapore