The term migrant worker has different official meanings and connotations in different parts of the world; the United Nations' definition is very broad, essentially including anyone working outside of their home country. In some countries, notably the U.S., the term has a specific connotation that the work will be low paid. The term can also be used to describe someone who migrates within a country, possibly their own, in order to pursue work such as seasonal work.
The "United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families defines migrant worker as follows:
The term "migrant worker" refers to a person who is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.This Convention has been ratified by Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines (amongst many other nations that supply foreign labour) but it has not been ratified by the United States, Germany and Japan (amongst other nations that depend on cheap foreign labour). For an up to date listing of ratifications and signatories visit this special page on the website of December 18, the International Advocacy and Resource Centre on the Human Rights of Migrant Workers.
It is also used currently for workers from China's impoverished regions who go to work in the more prosperous coastal regions. People like Wang Binyu, whose case became newsworthy in 2005. According to State statistics, the current number of migrant workers in China is estimated at 150 million, that is to say nearly 11.5% of the population. China’s urban migrants sent home the equivalent of almost 300 billion US$ in 2005.
The recent expansions of the European Union have provided opportunities for many people to be able to migrate to other EU countries for work. For both the 2004 and 2007 enlargements existing states were given the rights to impose various transitional arrangements to limit access to their labour markets.
In Canada companies are beginning to recruit temporary foreign workers under Services Canada's recent expansion of an immigration program for migrant workers.
The term foreign worker is generally used in the United States to refer to people fitting the international (UN) definition of migrant worker. The term migrant worker, in the U.S., refers to someone who regularly works away from home, if they have a home at all.
In the United States, this term is commonly used to describe low-wage workers performing manual labor in the agriculture field; these are often immigrants who are not working on valid work visas. The United States has enacted the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act to remove the restraints on commerce caused by activities detrimental to migrant and seasonal agricultural workers; to require farm labor contractors to register; and to assure necessary protections for migrant and seasonal agricultural workers, agricultural associations, and agricultural employers. Most migrant workers in America are people from Mexico and Central America.
The term migrant worker sometimes may be used to describe any worker who moves from one seasonal job to another. This use is generally confined to lower-wage fields, perhaps because the term has been indelibly linked with low-wage farmworkers and illegal immigrants. Examples of professions which could be called migrant workers, some of them quite lucrative, include: Electricians in the construction industry; other construction workers who travel from one construction job to another, often in different cities; wildland firefighters in the western United States; temporary/roving consulting work; and possibly even interstate truck drivers.
In America's history, starting at the end of the Civil War, hobos were the migrant workers who performed much of this agricultural work, using freight railroads as their means of transportation to new jobs. During the Great Depression, Okies who fled the dust bowl were a significant source of temporary farm labor.