‘Workers Without Borders’

When the size of “remittances” – money sent home by people working outside their home countries, to fund schooling and health care for their families and to help build community facilities – became clear a few years ago, politicians from both “sending” and “receiving” countries began to realize they needed to work together. They have now had two interesting conferences to begin thinking about how to create “circular” migration, which both supports “sending” country economies and meets labour force needs in “receiving” countries.

This recognition that migration, remittances, and employment are all connected is important in finding solutions that work.  Looking at these issues as if they are each independent (the “silo” approach) means solutions in one area impact the others, often in ways that are not so productive. The “wall” being built being Mexico and the US, for example, is costing the same amount of money that some scholars think could be raised if illegal migrants in the US were given the chance to become “legal”.

So I was heartened to see this excellent opinion piece in the New York Times, written by Jennifer Gordon, a professor of labor and immigration law at Fordham Law School. It is called Workers Without Borders, and appears in the March 9, 2009 edition of the NY Times. Prof. Gordon notes that “the current system hurts wages and working conditions – for everyone.”

She notes, as an example of an interconnected policy approach, how the EU dealt with an influx of workers when the EU was expanded:

Migrant mobility has been tried with success in the European Union. When the Union expanded in 2004 to include eight Eastern European countries, workers in Western Europe feared a flood of job seekers who would drive down wages. In Britain, for example, the volume of newcomers from countries like Poland was staggering. Instead of the prediction of roughly 50,000 migrants in four years, more than a million arrived.

Yet, as far as economists can tell, the influx did not take a serious toll on native workers’ wages or employment. (Of course, what happens in the global downturn remains to be seen.) Migrants who were not trapped in exploitative jobs flocked to areas that needed workers and shunned the intense competition of big cities. And when job opportunities grew in Poland or shrank in Britain, fully half went home again.