Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on Global Labor Mobility

Lant Pritchett
Center for Global Development
Introduction Pages 10 to 12

Six Accommodations for Politically Acceptable, Development-Friendly Migration

Because the main forces blocking increased labor mobility are ideas, the most important agenda is to develop ideas-proposals for the national and international agendas that create development-friendly policies toward migration and create sustained pressures for the adoption of these proposals.

Chapter 4 proposes six “accommodations” - aspects of proposals for greater labor mobility that are both politically acceptable to voters in rich countries and also development friendly. I argue that these six accommodations are necessary because the two major existing trends in migration policy are either not development friendly or are not likely to be politically acceptable.

As documented in Kapur and McHale’s “Give Us Your Best and Brightest” (2005), one trend in migration policy in countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is a move toward restricting migration or, if continued or increased levels of migration are contemplated, adopting policies that lead to “higher-quality” immigrants by placing more emphasis on skills. Though this emphasis on the contributions of potential migrants can lead to greater political acceptability (in part because it avoids downward pressure on unskilled wages), it is almost certainly less “development friendly” than allowing greater numbers of less skilled migrants. There are obvious benefits to “brain circulation” that might offset the traditional fears of “brain drain,” but it is almost certainly the case that if rich countries choose exclusively those migrants of higher productivity and grant them permanent status, this pattern of the “three Rs” (recruitment, remittance, and return) is less favorable for the migrant-sending countries than policies emphasizing remittances and return.

The other potential trend is toward bringing labor mobility under the World Trade Organization (WTO). I argue that the existing WTO is unlikely to be the focal point for substantially increased flows of unskilled labor. The principles that make the WTO (and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) a good forum for negotiating reductions in trade barriers - most favored-nation policies, price-based interventions in trade, and reciprocity - lead to politically unacceptable outcomes when applied to labor mobility.

A politically acceptable and development-friendly scheme for labor mobility should include six features:

-Bilateral, not general multilateral, agreements. These agreements will be between pairs or small sets of countries. There is little or no prospect for binding multilateral commitments or open arrangements. For security as well as historical and “culture clash” reasons, most host countries will engage in agreements that include only selected nationalities (and ration among those).

-Temporary status for labor mobility. The tide has turned toward using skills as a criterion for immigration policy (those admitted permanently) with many countries adopting policies intended to decrease the number of unskilled or low-skilled migrants (by reducing “family reunification” and asylum as modes of immigration). Hence the best hope for the increased admission of unskilled labor is labor mobility through temporary agreements-in spite of the risks this entails for political backlash.

-Rationing, using specific quotas (by job and perhaps region). Although economists would nearly always prefer prices over quantities as a means of regulation, politically only carefully controlled numerical allocations that use deliberative mechanisms to address fears of “taking away jobs” are likely to succeed.

-Enhance the development impact on the sending country. Because migration in the first instance benefits nationals while many conceive of development as about nation-states, development-motivated labor mobility policies should include ways of enhancing the perceived development impact. One objection must be addressed: In bringing labor mobility onto the development agenda, the maximum additional labor that would be accommodated is so small that the benefits would be concentrated on only a few citizens of poor countries, like a labor lottery.

-Involvement of the sending country in enforcement. One major concern of any scheme for temporary migration is that liberal democracies are incapable of adequately enforcing such agreements unilaterally. Sending-country cooperation can greatly assist in making temporary schemes feasible.

-Protection of the fundamental human rights of migrants. This is not an “accommodation” but also a fundamentally desirable feature of any program for labor mobility. No one is more vulnerable than a person far from home who does not understand the language and the legal system, and who is often outside any social support network (because migrants often work alone) and is seen as ripe for exploitation by employers and traffickers. To be politically acceptable in rich countries, programs need to emphasize that people coming to perform unskilled labor are not making "tragic choices" from economic desperation (as they at times are when migration is made illegal) but are making positive choices in which their dignity and rights are maintained.

In discussing how the wealthy countries of the world can assist in the development of the rest of the world, the policy agenda has often been dominated by aid and trade. In fact, there is a sense that some hope more generous aid and freer trade could make migration-which is politically a much more highly charged issue-completely unnecessary. Migration policies in some instances are even perceived to be working against development goals. But after half a century of aid-centered development policies and programs combined with a gradual but now nearly complete “globalization of everything but labor,” the global system should now be ready to bring labor mobility fully onto the agenda. For this to produce positive outcomes, there must be sustained attention to the design and implementation of schemes that can accommodate the mounting irresistible forces against the immovable opposition of rich-country citizens’ ideas.


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