Vol 9 - No. 1



Greener Pastures Slipping Away


PARIS  - An ever-increasing number of foreigners in most of the world's rich countries are being thrown out of jobs that they hoped would lead them to greener pastures. They are falling prey to the impact of global economic downturn that is catapulting natives out of work -- a situation that creates a vicious circle governments do not find easy to break.

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurrķa explains what makes the present state of affairs smack of a catch-22: The drop of economic activity is affecting local and migrant workers, but the latter are more vulnerable. This is because of employers are often more reluctant to hire immigrants and more ready to fire them. And, with rising unemployment, there is more competition for jobs from local workers.

As a result, unemployment rates among immigrants have risen more than among native-born workers. Simultaneously, the environment for migration policies is getting tougher. Numerical limits and lists of occupations in shortage have been reduced and employment tests are being applied more strictly.

Programmes to encourage immigrants to return to their home countries have been introduced and measures to combat irregular migration reinforced, says Gurrķa introducing a new report released June 30 by the 30-nation OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) in Paris.

The report states facts and figures: in the United States, for example, the unemployment rate of immigrants was below that of the native-born prior to the crisis; it is now above, 10 percent for immigrants compared to 9 percent for natives as of March this year.

In Spain, more than one out of four immigrants in the labour force is now unemployed, a proportion which rises to more than two out of five for immigrants from Africa.

This vulnerability is partly due to the fact that migrant workers are overrepresented in economic sectors that have benefited from the previous long growth period, and are now particularly hard hit by the crisis such as construction, hotels and restaurants.

But immigrants, in particular the most recent arrivals, are also more often employed in less secure and low-skilled jobs which are among the first to disappear during a downturn.

Many of the countries which are hardest hit were also among those which had record-high migration inflows in the years prior to the crisis, such as Ireland, the United Kingdom and Spain. This is a worrying coincidence, says the report titled the 'International Migration Outlook'.

The report shows the first evidence that the economic downturn has put a brake on this rising trend in labour migration. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, for example, migration flows from the new EU member countries have declined by more than half.

Countries are also reducing their labour migration programmes.

Italy has announced its intention to set its quota for non-seasonal labour migration to zero this year, compared with 150 000 in 2008. Korea has more than halved its quota for temporary foreign workers under bilateral schemes. Australia has reduced its programme of permanent labour migrants by setting a quota 20 percent below the initially planned target for the ongoing fiscal year.

For the first time in many years, the allocation limit for the main U.S. temporary work visa was not reached immediately this year, says the report.

This is in stark contrast to the situation about a year ago. "Not long ago, many OECD countries were looking to labour migration as one way to address labour shortages and the expected declines in the working-age population as a result of ageing," says the OECD chief.

"This was to be the new age of labour migration," he adds. High levels of migration were being recorded in the new migration countries of southern Europe and more widely, in the European Economic Area, following EU enlargement. At the same time, the traditional settlement countries -- Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. -- were also seeing their highest immigration levels in recent decades.

The economic crisis, however, has put a brake on these recent trends. OECD countries now find themselves in the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Latest projections show GDP plummeting by an average of 4.3 percent in the OECD area in 2009; by the end of 2010, unemployment rates in many countries could reach double-digit levels for the first time since the early 1990s

However, not all labour shortages disappear during a downturn, nor do family and humanitarian migration come to a standstill. Gurrķa is optimistic that some labour migration will continue to be needed.

"Migration is not a tap that can be turned on and off at will. In tackling the jobs crisis, governments need to make sure that immigrants do not fall prey to increasing xenophobia and that discriminatory practices do not worsen an already difficult situation for them. Integration programmes need to be maintained, if not strengthened. Equality of opportunity is not a principle to be applied only during good times," the OECD chief points out.

With the onset of economic recovery, which may take some time, the pressures in the labour market will reassert themselves and international migration flows are likely to rebound as part of the solution to addressing these.

International migration will remain a prominent feature of the global economy. And the difficulties in managing it that were present before the downturn will still remain to be tackled.

That is why governments that have factored in longer term issues in addressing the recession will be in a better position to mobilise labour migration and the skills of immigrants in support of renewed growth and prosperity.

"Among other things, this means a migration system that can respond efficiently to labour market needs, can reduce irregular migration and employment -- or redirect it into legal channels -- , and can ensure better outcomes for new immigrants and for their children," says Gurrķa.

The International Migration Outlook was launched to coincide with the first-ever OECD High-Level Policy Forum on Migration June 29-30 in Paris. Government ministers and senior officials in charge of migration and integration issues discussed the current economic crisis and its impact on international migration, considered ways to manage labour migration movements and labour market integration of immigrants and their children.


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