The Economics and Politics of Migrant Rights 2008 – 2014


This project analyses how and why high-income countries restrict the rights of migrant workers (‘migrant rights’) as part of their labour immigration policies, and discusses the implications for policy debates about regulating labour migration and protecting migrants. It engages with theoretical debates about the tensions between human rights and citizenship rights, the agency and interests of migrants and states, and the determinants and ethics of labour immigration policy. The empirical analysis of the project is global, and includes an examination of the characteristics and key features of labour immigration policies and restrictions of migrant rights in over forty high-income countries as well as in-depth analysis of policy drivers in major migrant-receiving and migrant-sending countries.

The project aims to contribute to normative and policy debates about the rights that migrants workers should have when working abroad. In particular, the project explores whether there is a case for advocating a limited set of ‘core rights’ for migrant workers, rather than the comprehensive set of rights demanded by the UN’s International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, and, if so, what these core rights should be, and what implications might ensue for human rights-based approaches to international labour migration. As these research questions suggest, the project separates hard-nosed political economy analysis of the determinants of migrant rights in practice (i.e., what is current reality) from the equally important normative discussion of what rights migrant workers should have from a moral/ethical point of view.

Principal Investigator

Martin Ruhs


ESRC (COMPAS core funds)

Professionals' Advisory Group

Philip Martin, UC Davis (one joint paper in this project)

News & Media

The Light of Evidence 3: Continuing the policy debate
Blog | COMPAS Communications

Ten features of labour immigration policies in high-income countries
Blog | COMPAS Communications

The human rights of migrant workers: Why do so few countries care?
Blog | COMPAS Communications

The Price of Rights: Key policy trade-offs in migration
12 Nov 2014 | Vox Interview

The abuse of migrants: And still they come
19 Apr 2014 | The Economist

Migrants don’t need more rights
18 Dec 2013 | New York Times Op-ed

More migrants, fewer rights?: How shall we balance openness and rights in labour immigration policy?
18 Oct 2013 | COMPAS Breakfast Briefing presentation (with podcast)

Migrant Rights: Time for a New Approach
30 Sep 2013 | Al Jazeera Op-ed

More media on the book website



Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, the Netherlands, Turkey, UAE, UK, USA, Venezuela


Labour MarketsPoliciesRightsWelfare


AsiaEuropeOceaniaThe Americas


A key analytical starting point of this project is that the rights of migrant workers not only have intrinsic value as underscored by human rights approaches, but also play an instrumental role in shaping the effects of international labour migration for receiving countries, migrants and their countries of origin. Because rights shape the effects of labour immigration, migrant rights are in practice a core component of nation-states’ labour immigration policies.

The design of labour immigration policy requires simultaneous policy decisions on how to regulate the number of migrants to be admitted (e.g., through quotas or points-based systems); how to select migrants (e.g., by skill and/or nationality); and what rights to grant migrants after admission (e.g., temporary or permanent residence; access to welfare benefits; and limited or unlimited rights to employment). When receiving countries decide on these three issues, the impacts on the ‘national interest’ (however defined) of the existing residents in the host countries are likely to be of great significance.

Viewing migrant rights as instruments of labour immigration policy has two key implications for research. First, any analysis of the reasons for migrant rights restrictions necessitates an explicit discussion of the economic, social, political, and other consequences of migrant rights (restrictions) for the national interests of migrant-receiving and migrant-sending countries, as well as for migrants themselves. These consequences can include multifaceted benefits along with costs that may vary across different rights, between the short and long run, as well as between migrants with different skills. Any analysis of the costs and benefits of migrant rights thus needs to be disaggregated, and needs to look at the impacts of specific rights for specific groups of migrant workers.

Second, migrant rights cannot be studied in isolation of admissions policy, both in terms of positive and normative analysis. To understand why, when, and how countries restrict the rights of migrant workers, and explore what rights migrant workers should have, we need to consider how particular rights restrictions are related to policies that regulate the admission (i.e., the numbers and selection) of migrant workers. In other words, theories, empirical analysis and normative debates of labour immigration policy need to take account of openness, skills and rights.


The project takes an inter-disciplinary, cross-country and mixed-methods approach to the analysis of migrant rights and immigration policy, drawing from the relevant theoretical and empirical research on migration and migration policies in economics, politics, and law. It analyses migration debates, impacts and policies in a wide range of immigration and emigration countries around the world. The measurement of migrant rights involves the construction of an index of the legal rights of migrant workers and openness to labour immigration in fifty high- and middle-income countries.


Labour immigration programs that target the admission of higher-skilled workers are more open and grant migrants more rights than programmes targeting lower-skilled workers. There is also evidence that labour immigration programmes can be characterized by trade-offs between openness and some migrant rights—that is, programmes that are more open to admitting migrant workers are also more restrictive with regard to specific rights. The trade-off between openness and rights affects only a few specific rights rather than all rights, and that they most commonly include selected social and economic rights, as well as rights relating to residency and family reunion. My empirical analysis suggests that trade-offs between openness and migrant rights can be found in policies that target a range of skills, but are generally not present in labour immigration programs specifically designed for admitting the most highly skilled workers for whom there is intense international competition.

From a global justice perspective, both ‘more migration’ and ‘more rights for migrants’ are seen as being  ‘good things’. But the trade-offs between openness and some migrant rights suggest that in practice we cannot always have both, so a choice needs to be made. In my normative analysis of this project, I argue that there is a strong case for liberalising global labour migration through temporary migration programmes that protect a universal set of ‘core rights’, and account for the interests of nation-states by restricting a few specific rights that create net costs for receiving countries, and are therefore obstacles to more open admission policies.


The research for this project underpinned a REF Impact Case Study led by Martin Ruhs and submitted by the Department of Social Policy and Intervention. The impact case study was evaluated as 4* in REF2014.