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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Selective Immigration: Points-based versus Employer-driven Systems

Now that the EU Blue card is off and running in Europe, this seems like a good moment to talk about the two formal systems of selective immigration around the world.  Almost all states and super-states that have decided to compete for the pool of highly-skilled talent have implemented one or the other.

Points-based:  Canada was the first to implement such a system with Australia and the UK being more recent adopters.  Based on a questionnaire or a calculator, the potential migrants answers a series of questions and is assigned points based on his/her answers.  Naturally the migrants gets more points for desirable qualities like being in the right age bracket, showing academic achievement, and having a profession useful to the destination country.  The Work Permit site has calculators on-line so a potential migrant can actually assess his/her chances of getting a work permit or residency from the comfort of home.  These tools can have another purpose - if you are interested in getting a sense of your personal competitiveness on the global labor market (or even your home market) running your skills and personal data through one of these calculators can give you a good idea of where you sit relative to other people.  I ran my data through the Australian Skilled Immigration Calculator which asked me questions like:  are you under 50? Is your English at least at 'Competent' Level? Do you have a post secondary education?  I was also asked to refer to a Skilled Occupation List which shows what professions are of interest to them.  Once you clear the basic requirements questionnaire you then go on to answer a number of specific about your work experience, language skills and so on.  Very well designed and quite transparent - they actually tell you how many points you will receive for each answer.

Critics of such systems point out that the criteria are pretty narrow and certainly don't take into account people whose experience or professions falls outside the norm.  I got the impression from the Australian Skilled Occupation list that they were primarily interested in Finance, Engineering and IT.  Does that means philosophers and poets need not apply?  

The other method is called Employer-based.  The European Blue Card definitely falls into this category.  Here selection is based on the migrant's employability.  Employers make the selection and the state provides the residency/work permit.  This is great for business but is it good for migrants?  I think it is good in the sense that the migrant has a job immediately and does not end up working at a fast-food outlet when his qualifications are more oriented to the healthcare sector. On the other hand, the migrant may be tied to that employer for a certain period of time and can't seek work elsewhere if things don't work out with the sponsoring company.  This can lead to something that is not quite slavery but does resemble a sort of indentured servitude since the migrants are not really in a position to complain about work conditions and salary.  The U.S. has such a system as do many other countries like Spain, Norway and Sweden.

There is a lot of debate about which system is better.  The Migration Policy Institute recently published a report outlining some of the advantages and disadvantages of both systems.  They argue that a points-based system can lead to "de-skilling" with immigrants being forced to take jobs in other sectors or to stay unemployed because they can't find work.  This can mean that integration into the destination country culture becomes more difficult.  Employer-driven systems do seem to help integration but, quite frankly,  they also encourage businesses to seek cheaper labor from abroad.  These foreign workers are very vulnerable to being treated unfairly since the employer holds all the cards.  These systems also reduce the power of labor in the destination countries since businesses can bypass hiring locals in order to reduce costs and degrade overall working conditions for everyone.

The MPI proposes alternatives to these systems which amount to creating hybrid systems (best of both worlds).

I think they miss the point.  The way the debate is presented implies that the choices are between allowing governments to decide who gets in based on their ideal for future residents/citizens or allowing businesses to drive immigration based on business interests and economic considerations.  Neither takes into account the interests of labor, both foreign and domestic, overall.  One has the impression that labor organizations don't even have a seat at the table when such things are negotiated.  I suspect that this situation has arisen because labor organizations can be fairly parochial and generally only look at or concern themselves with the condition of native workers within their own countries or super-states.

Since they have had limited success in keeping foreign labor out (which is highly unrealistic), this strategy seems fatally flawed.  I think we need more international labor organizations that can address labor issues at a global level to ensure that workers get a fair deal in all countries.  It will be messy, it will be hard, but  it's worth doing and it's in the interest of all working people all over this planet.  Failure to do this means that governments and business win by default.

It's an old song, "Workers of the world, unite!" but, let's face it, big business and finance went global long ago.  It's high time for labor to go back to first principles and do the same.  Not to stop globalization but to make sure that it's a good deal for everyone.


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