Search for work and workers at heart of migration in this century, says IOM’s World Migration Report 2008

By | 2 December 2008

Geneva – People are becoming increasingly mobile within and across borders to meet the social and economic challenges of globalization with the search for employment at the heart of most movement in the 21st century, says the World Migration Report (WMR) 2008 launched today by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The report, focusing on the theme of Managing Labour Mobility in the Evolving Global Economy, argues that demands for increased efficiency in production as a response to fierce global competition has meant that workers, independent of their geographical location, are increasingly living in an inter-connected world of work, resulting in greater labour mobility.

With more than 200 million international migrants in the world today, two and a half times the number in 1965, and most States simultaneously being countries of migrant origin, transit and destination, WMR 2008 states that human mobility has become a life choice driven by disparities in demography, income and employment opportunities across and within regions.

“The international community made some very important choices in the last century to facilitate the development of the global economy by allowing the free movement of capital, goods and services. The inevitable consequence of that choice is human mobility on an unprecedented global scale. But for all countries, matching the subsequent supply and demand in an international labour market remains a critical challenge,” says Gervais Appave, Co-Editor of the WMR 2008.

These pressures for labour mobility, the report predicts, are set to increase in a world where industrialized countries, already competing for highly skilled migrants, are also in short supply of much needed, though often less accepted, low and semi-skilled workers. This has been largely due to an increasing scarcity of local workers available or willing to engage in low or semi-skilled employment such as in agriculture, construction, hospitality or domestic care. Within the next 50 years, these countries will experience even greater shortages as birth rates fall and the working population age, leaving twice as many people over 60 years of age than children.

The current supply imbalance in the global labour force is also expected to worsen, according to the report. Demographic trends show that without immigration, the working age population in developed countries is expected to decline by 23% by 2050. During this time, the working age population for Africa alone is expected to triple from 408 million in 2005 to 1.12 billion (UN DESA, 2006) while another study claims that China and India are likely to account for 40 per cent of the global workforce by 2030.

The report points to South Africa as a major destination country in the Southern African sub-region, hosting over one million migrants. Namibia ranks first in terms of migrants as a share of the total population, although this proportion decreased slightly between 2000 and 2005. Between 1990 and 2000, total visits to South Africa increased from one million to 5.1 million, African visits to South Africa increased from 550,000 to four million, and SADC visits to South Africa increased from 500,000 to 3.7 million. Of concern to the region is the emigration of health workers with countries like Mozambique experiencing up to 75% physician emigration rate. However, South Africa is also a destination for health professionals of all categories from Africa and beyond.

Mindful of the adverse effects of too much out-migration on their economies and societies, the reports says job creation at home remains the priority of most migrant origin and developing countries. Nevertheless, an increasing number of governments are complementing this strategy by seeking opportunities for their workers on the international labour market to help develop their economies.

“What we are witnessing in countries of varying levels of development is a re-emergence of low and semi-skilled temporary labour migration programmes in a bid to square the needs of an economy and a labour market while minimizing any political backlashes to increases in migration,” says Ryszard Cholewinski, Co-Editor of the WMR 2008. “However, this strategy can only work if there is a complementary vision to develop the human resources of any labour force and to adequately protect the rights of migrant workers participating in such programmes.”

The priority for any country and for the global economy as a whole is to have planned and predictable ways of matching labour demand with supply in safe, legal and humane ways, WMR 2008 finds.

Crucially, such an approach would ensure the fundamental human security of migrants through their better economic and social protection in work and in life and lessen irregular migration flows. This protection would not only encompass migrants but automatically their families, whether they have migrated too or remained behind.

For developed countries, clearly aware that labour market dynamics are increasingly operating across international borders, the challenge will be in adopting planned, flexible, “front-door” labour migration policies that meet their own individual labour and skills needs.

“These types of policies are especially important during downturns in the global economy such as the one we are witnessing today. The Asian financial crisis of the 1990’s showed that even in times of economic hardship, there is still a structural need for migrants,” Appave argues. “The world is on the move, there is no turning away from that. If we harness that mobility through policies addressing both human and economic needs, many of the migration anomalies of the past can be overcome and we would see real progress when we talk about global development,” he concludes.

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