You are here: Home Knowledge Base Society Designing Intelligent Labor Migration Policies Proposals “Permanently temporary” – how do countries design temporary migration programmes that ensure availability of lower skilled workers for sectors or occupations experiencing systemic shortages while protecting workers’ rights?
Symposium 2012

Proposal - “Permanently temporary” – how do countries design temporary migration programmes that ensure availability of lower skilled workers for sectors or occupations experiencing systemic shortages while protecting workers’ rights?

The Challenge

While the world economy continues to become more global, international labor mobility remains severely restricted for all but those with rare or high skills. Many people in developing countries would ...

While the world economy continues to become more global, international labor mobility remains severely restricted for all but those with rare or high skills. Many people in developing countries would like to emigrate legally to work abroad but they do not qualify for admission to destination countries. This is because policy-makers typically focus on the net national economic impact when considering reforms of their labor migration policies and they naturally respond to public opinion about that impact.

One of the criticisms of labour migration programmes is that many of them focus on higher skill occupations or “talent mobility” but largely overlook shortages in lower skilled occupations.  The assumption is that job vacancies requiring lower levels of formal education or on-the-job training can be readily filled by local residents who simply need to be mobilized or encouraged to accept these positions.  However, this is not necessarily the case as there are a multitude of factors that affect every job-seeker’s willingness to accept lower-skilled work, particularly in G20 countries.  In fact, the terminology alone devalues the contributions made by workers in these sectors and the skills required to work effectively in many of these occupations that are not universal, such as attention to detail, client service, physical strength and dexterity.

Furthermore, there is a perception that lower-skilled entrants can be a potential burden on the social programming of host societies because if they become unemployed due to a breakdown in the employer-employee relationship or lay-off, they have fewer financial resources.

For these and other reasons, when considering lower skilled labour migration the preference has traditionally been to make these programmes temporary or “circular”, and to ensure repatriation once the labour market need is no longer apparent.

However, certain sectors and occupations appear to have labour market shortages that are systemic, which calls into question whether or not the need is truly “temporary” in nature.  These shortages are particularly pronounced in seasonal occupations (such as agriculture, tourism and fishing) but also in non-seasonal and cyclical sectors such as construction and sectors dominated by women, such as domestic work.  There are a number of reasons why the national labour force may not be able to fill the labour demand in these sectors.  This includes low levels of unemployment, opportunities in higher paying occupations, preference for full-time year-round work over seasonal work, and over-skilling of nationals who no longer wish to work in lower-skilled occupations.

The result is a paradox where employers have cyclical or long-term labour market needs for lower skilled workers who have reduced access to permanency because current policies fail to recognize the systemic nature of these labour market gaps.  This can result in a situation where migrants find themselves to be “permanently temporary” in the sense that they work in the same occupation – sometimes even for the same employer – year after year, but without many of the rights afforded permanent labour migrants.  Critics of these programmes argue that they increase worker vulnerability to employment-related abuse and exploitation because there is usually no “right of return” or seniority so workers are more dependent on their employers.  Additionally, although the workers are semi-permanent members of the host communities, their temporary status often makes them ineligible to participate in integration programming designed for permanent residents.

In the host countries, employers complain of the increased administrative burden and cost associated with having to re-apply for work permits for workers and/or demonstrate their need for foreign labour, year after year that may result in the reduced capacity for human resource planning because they cannot rely upon a continued relationship with their trained and experienced workers.

A policy solution for this problem is the establishment of long-term sectoral work permits that allow re-entry for multiple years. Some of the attributes of these proposed work permits would be:

  • Migrants could enter a country and work for multiple years (a proposal of five) and with multiple-entry visas.
  • Employers would have increased certainty in predicting their human resource needs with decreased administrative burden.
  • Although the work permits would not be restricted to one employer, they would be restricted to employers within a sector (for example, agriculture, tourism, fishing or construction) to ensure that labour market needs continue to be met.
  • This would enable workers to have greater mobility and allow workers to more easily leave abusive situations while still meeting a demonstrated labour market need.
  • Sectoral work permits would reduce vulnerabilities because work permits would not tie workers to an individual employer;
  • In industries with fluctuations in labour market demand such as agriculture or construction, this flexibility would also allow workers to move from one employer to another depending when work is available, maximizing earnings for workers and decreasing “down time.”
  • If there are concerns that migrants would stay permanently and create social pressures on families, limits could be placed on a worker’s ability to stay beyond the period of time allotted in the work permit (for example, individual workers could be granted a one-time, five-year cumulative work permit).

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