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Labour migration in the twenty-first century: E Pluribus, Unum?

The world's 90 million migrant workers constitute 3 per cent of the global workforce, and migrant experiences range from red carpet welcomes for some computer programmers to detention and deportation for some apprehended unauthorized workers. What can be done to ensure that international labour migration is a force for global betterment? A recent study, co-authored by two ILO experts presents a comprehensive analysis of the causes and effects of labour migration.

Article | 10 March 2006

OAXACA (ILO Online) - José Gonzaléz left his village in Oaxaca, travelled north by bus through Mexico, and found a smuggler to guide him over the Mexican-United States (US) border and through the Arizona desert to Phoenix in the state of Arizona.

From there, a van took him to a meatpacking plant in the US state of Iowa. José bought a driver's licence and green card from a man he met in the store serving the immigrant community, and presented his documents at the meatpacking plant. After a morning orientation that included watching a safety video and getting a lesson on sharpening knives, he went to work, earning US$8 an hour for cutting the large pieces of meat that passed in front of him into smaller pieces.

If José stays on the "dis-assembly line" for at least 60 days, his cousin Manuel, who told him about the job and lent him money to pay the smuggler, will receive a US$200 referral payment.

José is just one of the world's 90 million migrants. According to the new study, Managing Labor Migration in the Twenty-first Century, demographic, economic, and other differences between countries are widening, promising more international migration in the twenty-first century.

Migration is a huge issue. Nearly 10 per cent of 110 million persons born in Mexico have migrated to the US. The US and other industrialized countries responded to this upsurge in legal and unauthorized migration by expanding border controls and the development of guest worker programmes in the 1990s. Most of them aimed at keeping foreign workers only temporary.

"While the old guest worker programs spread workers throughout the labour market under a single set of rules, the new guest worker programmes are intended to fill job vacancies in particular labour niches", explains Christiane Kuptsch, co-author of the book.

The book cites the example of computer programmers and other professionals who are often allowed or encouraged to stay as immigrants, while farm workers and seasonal labourers are sometimes subjected to rules that aim to rotate them out of the country after a few months.

Managing labour migration

The US understands itself as a nation of immigrants with the motto "E Pluribus Unum" - from many, one - a reminder that Americans share the experience of having left another country to begin anew in the US, or of having forebears who did so.

"This is why most Americans believe that immigration is in the national interest. Globally, the question is how to manage migration until differences narrow enough to make migration a non issue, as among the 15 'old' member States of the European Union", says Kuptsch.

According to the study, remittances, the portion of migrant incomes that are sent home, can reduce poverty and incentives to migrate. In the mid-1990s, remittances have surpassed official development assistance in developing countries and the World Bank's Global Development Finance report estimated that remittances to developing countries reached US$115 billion in 2003.

Expanded trade between the sending and the recipient countries is an important remedy for unwanted migration, the study says. Although trade and investment often seem to be the slow road to stay-at-home development, the world has found no other path that promises sustained economic and job growth. As an example, the study cites the Chinese provinces and Indian states that attracted foreign investment to produce manufactured goods for export, have had the fastest rate of poverty reduction, and often attract internal migrants to the areas that attract investors.

The book identifies a need for more dialogue on migration between sending, transit, and recipient countries and raises the question whether this dialogue should occur in multilateral, bilateral or regional forums. According to the study, the ILO plays a key role in helping governments and social partners to regulate labour migration and protect migrant workers so that migration for employment becomes a win-win proposition for home and host countries.

"Labour migration is a difficult and complex challenge for migrant workers, employers, and governments in the twenty-first century. In this book, we set out suggestions for cooperation to help ensure that labour migration contributes to the convergence between nation-states needed for peace and prosperity in a globalizing world", concludes Kuptsch.

Managing Labor Migration in the Twenty-first Century, by Philip Martin, Manolo Abella and Christiane Kuptsch, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2006.