The Need for Human Rights-Based Approach to Migrant Mobilizing

The Need for Human Rights-Based Approach to Migrant Mobilizing By: By: Marko de Guzman, Editing by: Sophie Heisle

Cover Art: Drawing of Gina Bahiwal, a temporary foreign worker, during the Justice for Migrant Workers Harvesting Freedom campaign

The dislocation of migrant workers can impose a variety of negative effects on their daily realities.  Adjusting to a new environment can be draining in itself, and thus resisting and negotiation those effects can be an additional obstacle to manage when relocating.  Fortunately, they do not have to resist on their own, as pro migrant NGOs and community organizations aid in mobilizing migrants to demand better working conditions collectively. Migrant activism as demonstrated by Jennifer Gordon (2005) is the collective work of migrants, lawyers, law students, advocates, community organizers, and their allies. The success of these migrant organizations is dependent on an adoption of human rights education and a human rights-based approach as their collective action and mobilization strategy. This strategy helps them to effectively frame their cause, allows for a broad-based coalition, and ensures collective consciousness and awareness of issues and strategies migrants can take. The superiority of this strategy in migrant mobilization if supported by the political process theory and resource mobilization theory, and  incorporates Faraday’s recommendation and the experiences of Worker’s Project.

Social movement theories and the human rights based approach form the basis for this successful strategy of mobilization. Political process theory (PPT) claims that a success or a failure of a social movement is dependent on political opportunities, organizational strength, and cognitive liberation or insurgent consciousness.[2] Resource mobilization theory (RMT) deals with the ability of an organization to acquire resources and to mobilize people to accomplish a given movement’s goal[3]. Both theories take migrants as rational, political, and social actors. An NGO relies on a bottom-up approach to development that occurs when local actors take part in the decision-making and decide on priorities of the community.[4] Finally, a human rights-based approach focuses on respecting and protecting the rights and dignity of all; this approach follows international human rights standards to promote and protect human rights. It also enforces accountability of duty-bearers (the state) and the right-holders (citizens). Additionally, human rights-based approach implies educating individuals on their rights and their responsibilities in a given context or countries. [5]

Human Rights-Based Approach to Effectively Frame Migrants’ Organizing

Informed by political process theory’s concept of organizational strength, a successful social movement emerges when an NGO gathers a large number of participants who will become advocates and activists for the cause being defended.[6] This need for members/future activists is very challenging for a community organization,  as it means the NGO needs to frame their cause in a way that encompasses a broader objective that a large number of people can relate to. Framing relies on meaning construction, “an active processual phenomenon that involves agency and contention”[8] and can occur in two ways: through a local or global framing process.  A local framing process assumes the problem is  locally-based, while a global framing process accepts that a local problem is entrenched in  a worldwide phenomenon.[9]

For pro-migrant community organizations to succeed, they need to frame their collective action using a global framework like the human right-based perspective. By imploring that migrants’ rights are human rights, migrants are more likely to be inclined to join the movement to fight for better-working conditions. The argument that migrants deserve to be treated equally because they share the same human dignity and have the same rights to life, liberty, and security as any other living person is strong enough to provoke excitement  in those who hear it, and cause them to ally with an NGO that runs a campaign for better treatment of migrants.

Simply framing migrant issues such as unpaid overtime, sexual harassment, and discrimination, as local problems undermines the long-term goal of improving wages and working conditions of migrants.[10] This is exemplified through the Workplace Project, an initiative founded in 1992 focused on ending the exploitation of Latino immigrant workers on Long Island.   Initially, the Workplace Project  focused their energy and attention on providing legal aid services through their legal clinic. Migrants could come to the clinic for a quick fix of their problems, where  a Court decision or a decision by the Department of Labour would be rendered in their appeal.[11] However, their strategy of focusing on short term action and a quick fix only created a recipient-to-donor dependency that did not advance the goal of collective action. Henriquez, a community organizer at the Workplace Project attests to this, stating  “it’s no good to have a clinic that attracts people if it does not keep them around if it teaches them only that they should look for us again the next time they have a problem.”

Fay Faraday, a social justice lawyer and strategic advisor, offers a solution to framing migrant issues using a human rights framework. She argues that to reinforce a reality of decent work for migrant workers, their access to and experience of a) fundamental human rights, b) rights at work, c) voice, d) social inclusion, e) social security, f) effective rights enforcement must be referenced and prioritized by NGOs advocating for migrants’ rights.[12] She concludes that these various variables must work together, as they will undoubtedly link to struggles as other sectors face, as is integral to building a broad-based coalition of mass social movements.

Human Rights-Based Approach for Collective Consciousness and Awareness of Issues

While Faraday acknowledges that “formal rights have limited meaning if workers are not able to experience the real protection of those rights and are not able to access effective enforcement of those rights,” I also argue that these rights serve nothing to the migrants if they themselves do not know what rights or claims they can make.  When a pro-migrant NGO adopts a human rights-based approach or framework, they are also inclined to prioritize human rights education necessary for collective consciousness and awareness of issues that the migrants need. Faraday argues that migrants lack adequate information about their rights as workers and temporary residents in Canada. They also lack knowledge of the legal processes necessary to pursue their employer. Finally, , they lack an effective and a legitimate voice of their own.[13] As a result, pro-migrant NGOs must educate migrants first on their rights before expecting them to become active participants in the fight for migrants’ rights. In the resource mobilization theory, this collective consciousness, or what the PPT calls cognitive liberation or insurgent consciousness, along with education, can be seen as necessary resources for social movements. In the example of The Workplace Project, the organization realized this concept when they implemented their “Workers Course.”, which educates members of the organization on the above topics in order to better equip them for legal proceedings and the defense of their rights. [14]

Human Rights-Based Approach to Build Broad-Based Coalition

Lastly, if an NGO adopts a human rights-based approach/framework they can then build a broad-based coalition with other sectors, this strategy that ensures “effective representation and support for migrant workers.” For example, in the case of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program of Canada, if the pro-migrant organizations advocating for seasonal workers, caregivers, pilot project workers build a coalition based on the principle of demanding that the Canadian government enhance their accountability and transparency on immigration policy, then NGOs will have bigger bargaining power and legitimacy to make a claim. Building a broad-based coalition helps to ensure that political initiative to change the programs in place can be beneficial for other migrants.


In order to be successful, a human rights-based approach or framework must be adopted by pro-migrant NGOs. This approach, exemplified in the case of the Workplace Project,  helps NGOs to effectively frame their cause,  allows for a broad-based coalition, and ensures collective consciousness and awareness of issues and strategies migrants can take. However, this strategy does not guarantee whether or not the government will listen to the claims of these NGOs. The responsibility to support migrants does not solely fall into the hand of NGOs. Ultimately, governments must act in enforcing and respecting the fundamental rights, international labour standards, human rights and Charter standards for the benefit of migrants who work in the receiving county. Social pressure from below is not enough; it must be coupled with an institutional change from within.

Work Cited


[1] Gordon, Jennifer. “Suburban Sweatshops: The Fight for Immigrant Rights.” Cambridge, Mass Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. <>.

[2] Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. “Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration and Domestic Work.” Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2001. Print.

[3] Tilly, Charles. “From Mobilization to Revolution.” Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub.Co, 1978. Print.

[4] Kendall, Diana Elizabeth, Rick Linden, and Jane Lothian Murray. “Sociology in Our Times: The Essentials.” Toronto: ITP Nelson, 1998. Print.

[5] Nazzari, Vincenza, Paul McAdams, and Daniel Roy. 2005. “Using Transformative Learning As a Model for Human Rights Education: A Case Study of the Canadian Human Rights Foundation’s International Human Rights Training Program”. Intercultural Education. 16, no. 2: 171-186. Print.

[6] Jordan, Lisa and Peter van Tuijl. 2006. “Rights and Responsibilities in the Political Landscape of NGO Accountability: Introduction and Overview.” In NGO Accountability: Politics, Principles, and Innovations Edited by Lisa Jordan and Peter van Tuijl. London,UK: Earthscan Press. Print.

[7] Tilly 1978: 7.

[8] Gordon 2005: 196.

[9] Benford, Robert D., and David A. Snow. 2000. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment”. Annual Review of Sociology. 26, no. 1: 611-639. Print.

[10] Lim, Adelyn. 2016. “Transnational Organising and Feminist Politics of Difference and Solidarity: The Mobilisation of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong”. Asian Studies Review. 40, no. 1: 70-88. Print.

[11] Gordon  2005: 190.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Faraday, Fay. “Made in Canada: How the Law Constructs Migrant Workers’ Insecurity.” Toronto, Ont: Metcalf Foundation, 2012. <>.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Gordon 2005; 196.

[16] Faraday 2012: 104.

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