Why countries are jostling to attract migrant workers

When the word “migrant” hits the headlines, it is often accompanied by the word “crisis”. But another story about migration is playing out, too — one in which countries are increasingly vying with one another to draw skilled workers to their shores.

There has always been a global competition to lure the top scientists, computer engineers and entrepreneurs, but nations are now trying to attract a much wider range of migrants with different skills, from manufacturing to nursing and construction.

Jean-Christophe Dumont, head of international migration at the OECD, says acute labour shortages after the pandemic have been one driver, together with worsening demographic pressures in a swath of ageing countries. Almost half the global population now lives in a country or area where the lifetime fertility rate (the average number of babies per woman) sits below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 — the number that would keep the population stable.

In Canada, the government is targeting a big expansion in immigration, noting that the worker-to-retiree ratio is expected to shift from seven-to-one 50 years ago to two-to-one by 2035. It wants 465,000 new permanent residents this year (up from a record 405,000 last year), 485,000 in 2024 and 500,000 in 2025.

Germany, meanwhile, is trying to attract more people from outside the EU. It can no longer rely only on workers from within the bloc, given that countries such as Poland are ageing rapidly, too. Under planned reforms, an “opportunity card” will use a points system to allow skilled people to move to Germany more easily. It also wants to cut the length of time people must live in the country before they acquire citizenship, and to lift the ban on dual citizenship for people outside the EU.

Australia has also promised reforms to make its immigration system less complex and more attractive to permanent skilled migrants. “We’re all wanting to drive our own green revolutions, our digital revolutions, and we’re competing with Germany and the US and the UK and Canada,” Andrew Rose from the Australian Permanent Mission to the UN told the Vienna Migration Conference last year.

Dumont says countries are “increasingly recognising that . . . it’s not enough to allow people to come. You need to offer them an attractive package.” Many factors matter: can they bring their family? Can their spouse work? Can they transition to a longer-term permit? Will they feel unwelcome?

If it is a race, one of the unexpected winners so far is the UK. Plenty of Brits who voted against Brexit — myself included — thought that outside the EU, the country would become more insular. But net migration reached a record high of about half a million people last year. The UK shot into the top 10 of the OECD’s rankings of countries that are most attractive to highly skilled workers. Most strikingly, the public seems fine with it. In 2022, for the first time in polling history, more people favoured maintaining, or even increasing, levels of migration than favoured cuts.

One big question is whether governments will be able to maintain public consent for bringing in more migrant workers (even as people voice unhappiness about irregular migration). Rob Ford, a politics professor at Manchester university, is cautiously optimistic for the UK, at least. First, there are structural changes at work: people who have been to university are more open to immigration, and the population is becoming steadily more educated.

Plus, the post-Brexit visa system gives people a sense of control: “If you were to have asked me in spring 2016 what migration policy framework would be most in line with public preferences, I would have said something like what we have now,” Ford tells me. “Very liberal on student migration, which voters don’t care about at all, and rules-based liberalism on the labour market.”

On the other hand, the mood might change if the economic cycle turns sharply. Policymakers who want to maintain public consent should make sure they enforce robust floors under pay and working conditions, so migrants aren’t exploited and locals don’t feel undercut in a downturn (something the UK has failed miserably to do for agricultural workers). They will also need to focus on housing supply and the quality of public services.

Even then, there could be “unexploded landmines” that suddenly change the debate, says Ford. “It’s always the basic problem with immigration as an issue — immigrants are by definition outsiders, and one of the most powerful campaign messages in politics is, ‘The outsiders are to blame’.”

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