30.06.2004 - SHS Newsletter 05

Interview with Nigel Harris: 'Migration is the factor which makes economic growth possible'

in SHS Newsletter 05

Author of Thinking the Unthinkable: the Immigration Myth Exposed, Nigel Harris advocates the free movement of people, pointing out that migration benefits both the recipient countries and the migrants’ home countries.

The phenomenon of migration is not recent, but the fact that the issue of migration is occupying an important place on the political agenda and in the public debate is…

Yes, for many different kinds of reasons. The world is going through some pretty wide-ranging changes. Think of Europe, with de-industrialization, privatization, globalization, 9/11, as well as the merging of national entities in the European Union. All these things are disturbing, not to mention radical reforms in pension, health and social security arrangements. They cause considerable insecurity. One needs to see migration within that context of heightened insecurity.

You argue that we are in a transition from closed or semi-closed labour markets to the development of a world labour market. Can you explain this transition?

Take the example of the United States and Mexico. If one thinks of migration in North America as within a single labour market – which happens by chance to be divided between two countries – one can see what the emergence of an integrated labour market means. It could be that the problem in North America is not that people are migrating, but that governments are stopping them. Governments are trying, as it were, to stop the labour market working and that is causing very serious collisions. Governments are failing because, do what they may, the labour market is working through illegal migration, trafficking and all the terrible things associated with that.

Now, to speak of a world labour market would be heroic at present. There are world labour markets for particular categories of labour: doctors, nurses, engineers and so on, highly skilled and professional labour. But in the case of unskilled labour there isn’t a single market at all, but particular national markets which are serviced by regular or irregular migration.

What is the relationship between migration and economic growth?

Economic growth requires both a labour force of a certain size, and a changing labour force in terms of skills. Economic growth and economic development both require structural change and therefore transformation in the demand for labour. In the past, each national economy in semi-closed systems was seeking to supply that demand completely from within the national boundaries. Now that is proving impossible. Not only can local resources not supply the structure of skills in a dynamically changing economy, they can’t even supply adequate unskilled labour.

This problem relates to education policies. If a government is attempting to upgrade its population in terms of education, then it is tending to make it impossible to fill unskilled labour jobs. That in turn affects the productivity of skilled labour. If a hospital doesn’t have the low-skilled labour – porters, kitchen staff, laundry staff, etc. – then the doctors can’t do their work. The productivity of skilled labour is thus affected by the availability of unskilled. In general, economic growth involves continual structural change, and this is now so rapid and unpredictable that national training systems cannot cope. Structural change means changing labour demand in terms of skills. In a global economy, each national economy is increasingly unable to meet local demand. That’s why migration is a key factor making economic growth possible.

Why do you criticize the current immigration policies of the rich countries?

Because they are self-destructive. If you stop the inflow of labour, you are making it more difficult to improve the welfare of your inhabitants. Take Europe: at the moment we have an ageing population. Ageing implies increasing labour-intensive services for the aged, particularly in the caring professions. If you stop the immigration of unskilled labour, then you undermine the welfare of the population and you may well undermine the welfare of the poorest of the population: those who use the services of low skilled immigrants. This is particularly severe in the case of health services and public health systems. As ageing takes place, the supply of lower skilled immigrant workers has to expand if we are to avoid severe deprivation among the poorer aged population.

You say that current immigration policies are based on manpower planning, the attempt to predict or foresee future needs for labour. Why do you think that this is not realistic?

It is the same as in any other sector of economic planning. The fact is, you can’t plan an economy, particularly a fragment of a global economy. The more dynamic the economy, the less you can predict what its labour need is going to be. You either overestimate or underestimate. We have just been through exactly that when the dot.com boom led to the developed countries scouring the world for it workers only to find the collapse of the dot.com industry. The cost of that error was considerable and it demonstrates the impossibility of planning in detail a dynamic economy. The more integrated the national in the world economy and the more dynamic it is, the less possible it is to anticipate the future, which is the precondition of planning.

In Europe, we are witnessing a contradictory phenomenon: the lack of qualified labour on the one hand and general increased unemployment on the other. How do you explain this trend?

The agreed opinion is that it is tied up with the social security system and the level of wages paid to unskilled workers. It is possible to get by with a given social security system without working. At the same time it is also possible to get by in the black economy – part of the European economy is statistically unrecorded. Furthermore, native-born workers with low skills will not work at the wages on offer in low-skilled jobs. So it is perfectly possible to have this kind of disjuncture of great scarcity in some sectors of the market and unemployment in others.

You recommend the introduction of temporary migrant worker schemes?

Yes, if you have labour shortages and people temporarily coming in to fill them, then that would be one short-term response. In Europe, people are hostile to increased migrant settlement at the moment and the political situation is unstable – politicians are competing for the vote on the basis of excluding foreigners. A temporary workers scheme, which means that people would return home after earning money, might meet some of those difficulties. I’m also arguing that migration should be an education scheme – people should come here to work and be on training courses to enhance the human capital in developing countries: all migrants would become, as it were, students.

So this would not only help raise incomes in rich countries but also contribute to alleviate poverty in the developing countries?

Yes. Recent studies have argued that if migration to the developed countries equivalent to one per cent of the labour force of the developed countries could take place, it would result in a two hundred billion dollars increase in worker remittance flows to developing countries. A major benefit of expanded migration is expanded incomes in developing countries, in particular affecting poorer families.

Why do you think there is a reluctance to accept the temporary workers status?

European societies have been created as nation-States, hypothetically founded upon a supposed ethnic, cultural, linguistic homogeneity which some people feel is threatened by immigration. The resistance is to migrant settlement. In the case of the Gastarbeiters in the 1960s (editor’s note: in Germany) people say: they came as temporary workers but they stayed. Which is actually quite wrong: a large number in fact did return. Migrants in general prefer to circulate, not to go into permanent exile. It is not true that people are desperate to go abroad and live there. They usually long, after a period, to return home.

In the case of the Gastarbeiters, the employers did not want to lose their experienced workers – especially when it was no longer possible to recruit new immigrant replacements – and the workers did not want to lose their jobs. So they connived, as it were, with the German Government to give workers some form of security and to have families, and so they became German.

In general, it is immigration regulations that force people into settling. We had this illustrated in the United States. The 1986 and 1992 Acts, which instituted ferocious border enforcement mechanisms, have meant that Mexicans who get across the border now settle in the US. They used to go home. In the early 1980s, Mexicans spent, on average, three years in the United States and then went home. Now they are spending nine years. So the perverse effect of the new legislation has been to increase enormously the number of Mexicans settling in North America.

So migration regulations and the pressure of governments actually have the opposite effect…

Yes, they increase the immobility of migrants. When you need a migrant workforce, you need a workforce that is available, that comes and goes. A settled population is not able to do that.

How do you see the temporary workers status being implemented concretely?

I would prefer it if the United Nations were to establish, though the IOM or the ILO, an agency to manage migration flows. I don’t trust national governments to do this in any kind of equitable form. But since it is most unlikely that national governments will concede to the United Nations the power to do this, then migration will come through bilateral agreements between sending and receiving countries and through what I’ve called ‘manpower planning’, thin edges to the wedge of full liberalization. Take, for example, British agriculture. The temporary workers scheme has become vital for gathering British seasonal crops. Slowly the scheme is expanding through various bilateral agreements as well as the issue of unilateral worker permits by the British Government. I hope it will expand to the point where nobody needs a permit, but can just come and work.

In many countries the question of the assimilation of immigrants has become increasingly important. Should it be encouraged?

Of course, if people wish to assimilate, they should be able to do so. But I’m much more interested in people being able to circulate – not assimilate. I think we are moving to a world in which people will travel about and work in many different places. Assimilation forces them to stop, forces them into citizenship. I would expect that over time, people won’t want to take citizenship. If it is easy to circulate, they will circulate.

Migration cannot be considered only from an economic point of view. Family reunifications and asylum seeking are part and parcel of the problem… The asylum issue is really quite different. This is people fleeing terror – they are not looking for work. I think that governments have used asylum-seekers as the sounding board for xenophobia. While they have been relaxing the controls on unskilled migration – certainly in the UK and the United States – they have at the same time been reserving asylum-seekers as the object of xenophobia. It seems almost a deliberate policy. Until we have a proper migration system in place, we cannot eliminate irregular migration. If it is legally possible to travel around and get a job, then nobody is going to do it illegally. That will take the whole stress off the use of the asylum seeking system for migrant workers, and we can have a proper asylum system.

I think the real problem is that asylum-seekers are forbidden to work. In the United Kingdom, for example, asylum-seekers are blamed for living off welfare. But they live off welfare because the government forbids them to work. It is an absurd situation which is almost designed to encourage xenophobia. All asylum-seekers should have the right to apply for work and the right to work as soon as they arrive, so that they can start to put their lives back together. Two years ago, the British Medical Association was complaining that there were a thousand foreign-born doctors kicking their heels in London, forbidden as asylum-seekers to work, when the National Health Service was desperate for doctors. It is completely irrational.

Does the recruitment of foreign workers at a lower cost compromise the condition of domestic labour forces?

It may do so on the margins, but the bulk of the evidence is that it doesn’t. A large number of econometric studies carried out in the US cannot trace any significant impact of increased migration upon native conditions, or levels of employment. When there is an effect, it is usually on an earlier cohort of migrants. In general, low skilled migrants undertake work abandoned by the native-born, so there is little competition. If increased immigration does affect native workers, they should be compensated. There is no reason why – as in any other sector of the economy – they should bear the burden of economic change.

You recommend free migration and open borders. Isn’t this unrealistic? Maybe, but it is worth raising the demand. Nobody thought trade would be liberalized and only discovered that it had been after it happened. We are now entering a period of probably half a century during which the world economy is going to be transformed and many of the perceptions about migration will be transformed as well. We will come to learn to live in a world economy rather than in little national corners. In fact, the European population will become much more mobile, at the same time as more immigrants come into Europe. It is a completely different scenario from a past of closed national economies. I’m not that pessimistic about being able to move to a world of open borders.

In your book Thinking the unthinkable you quote J. K. Galbraith who says that “migration is the oldest action against poverty which selects those who most want help”. He queries “what is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?”…

The perversity is people clinging to the old order of rival nation-States. They see the nation as their family even though that is absurd. The very principle of national government and citizenship turns on the sharp distinction between natives and foreigners. Natives are people who belong, are at home, who share a language and culture, who are to be trusted. Foreigners, to put it briefly, are crooks, not to be trusted. You only have to read the tabloid press in Britain to see this endlessly reiterated. Foreigners are invaders.

What will happen if the poor are prevented from migrating to escape poverty?

The black economy grows as the white economy is more and more regulated. The more governments regulate one bit of the economy, the more the other bit expands. So irregular migration will take the strain under the worst possible conditions and with abuses. But many things can alleviate this. The bulk of the labour intensive world economy is going to move to the developing countries in the next half century. In health services, I expect that in the coming period, as the population of Europe ages, more hospitals and convalescent homes for the aged of the developed countries will be built in developing countries because the cost is so low. The elderly in the wealthy countries will start migrating to developing countries to get medical services and retirement homes. Education is another example. The cost of teachers in developing countries is going to be lower, so there will be experiments in setting up schools and universities in developing countries. Many other service sectors will migrate. With luck, by 2050, we will no longer speak of developing countries but of a single world.

The current problems related to migration are not economic, but social, ideological and cultural. The resistance is a resistance to globalization, to the dismantling of the nation-State. Xenophobia is all about the defence of your own State and a refusal to see yourself as part of humanity.

Why do we need an instrument such as the Convention on Migrant workers – which entered into force a year ago?

Because the system is full of abuses at the moment. Because governments maintain systems of shallow regulation, which means there is a large amount of irregular movement and underneath that there is trafficking in women and children and so on. It means a lot of abuses.

However, the same is true within countries. Take China, for example. There are officially some 98 million migrant workers in China. The bulk of them, maybe 70 per cent or so, work in construction. It appears that employers only pay them two thirds of what they are entitled to – and there are no trade unions to force compliance. So abuses occur at all levels, not just international migration.

With a mobile labour force it may be slightly more difficult to ensure that working conditions are satisfactory. That is why the trade unions and NGOs have to develop all sorts of new mechanisms in order to protect migrant workers.

At the moment the lack of transparency – because governments only regulate a small part of the workforce – means that the abuses are enormous. As we know, in the worst cases workers are being treated like slaves, bonded serfs. But international migration is no different to domestic movement in this respect – in both cases, it is a long, difficult struggle to establish tolerable conditions.

Interview by Jeanette Blom


First anniversary of the UN Convention

1 July 2004 is the first anniversary of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. One year ago, on 1 July 2003, the United Nations Convention on migrants’ rights entered into force. The Convention, which has been ratified by 22 countries, aims primarily to protect the human rights of migrants.




<- Back to: SHSviews Magazine
Back to top