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September 2002, Volume 9, Number 9

OECD on Migration

The OECD publishes an annual report entitled Trends in International Migration (Continuous Reporting System on Migration or SOPEMI in its French acronym), as well as special studies on particular migration topics. Two of these special studies deal with illegal immigration and migration in Asia; they include papers prepared by researchers for conferences in April 1999 (Illegal Employment) and January 2000 (Asia).

Trends. Trends in International Migration - SOPEMI 2001, the 367-page 26th annual report, was released in December 2001. The three-part report includes an overview of trends in migration toward the 30 OECD countries, a study of foreign students and reports from many OECD countries on policies and trends. The report concludes that "migration plays an active part in the process of globalization" but that more needs to be done to "increase cooperation between and host countries in order to better manage migration flows." (p14).

The report identified three overall trends: a higher percentage of (temporary) workers among the inflow and more diversity in countries of origin, which prompted a "revival of migration for employment." (p15). Immigration increased in OECD countries in the 1990s, in part because of shortages of IT workers that prompted new temporary worker programs that admitted foreign professionals for three to six years. The report includes a special chapter on emphasizing the benefits of student mobility, and "encourages this type of mobility" while introducing safeguards to prevent a "brain drain."

The OECD noted that many migration flows involve primarily two countries, such as Albanians moving to Italy, while others are diversifying- the percentage of Brazilians in immigration to Portugal has fallen to 11 percent.

Most of the report's chapters summarize data and policy developments in individual countries. For example, the report notes that the 2.3 million Turks in Germany are the largest foreign community in any EU nation.

Illegal Employment. The two-part, seven-chapter publication dealing with unauthorized foreign worker employment includes papers on France, Mexico and the US, as well as overview and comparative papers. A valuable appendix includes short contributions on recent efforts to prevent illegal immigration in several European countries.

The late economist-demographer Georges Tapinos opens the unauthorized foreign worker publication with a paper that concludes that additional workers lower labor costs and thus stimulate economic growth, i.e., legal and illegal workers have positive macroeconomic effects, and the difference in these effects is a matter only of degree. Tapinos contrasts the approach of European nations to reduce illegal immigration, where combating illegal migrant employment is generally part of a larger strategy to reduce the size of the underground economy, with the approach of the US, where the Immigration and Naturalization Service is interested only in the employment of illegal foreign workers, not other labor laws.

A second paper on the Paris garment industry emphasizes that stepped-up enforcement has driven unauthorized workers and their employers underground, that is, the labor market changed in a manner that puts the most unskilled unauthorized foreign workers in very substandard conditions, from which upward mobility looks difficult.

There are several papers on legalization or regularization programs. An OECD survey paper notes that most of those legalized are young male workers, and that combating unauthorized foreign workers requires a broad effort to shrink the underground economy rather than simply a narrow effort targeted to reduce illegal immigration only, that is, the OECD endorses the European, and not the American approach to combating illegal immigration and employment.

There is an interesting paper on 100,000 unauthorized Guatemalan workers in southern Mexico (including family members), where they harvest coffee and sugar cane. This seasonal flow of migrant workers was augmented in the late 1980s and 1990s with Central Americans seeking to transit Mexico en route to the US. Beginning in 1997, Mexico began to issue seasonal work permits to Guatemalan efforts to help protect them.

In June 1996, the OECD sent a questionnaire to member-nations and used the responses to compile a valuable table that compares sanctions laws and penalties. Many countries increased penalties on employers who hired illegal workers in the 1990s, and some countries fine unauthorized migrants as well as employers, but all acknowledged that their sanctions policies were not totally effective. One theme running through the responses is the need to coordinate the efforts of agencies responsibilities included the prevention and/or detection of illegal immigration, residence, and employment-there appears to be a need for better coordination between tax, labor, immigration and other agencies in all OECD countries.

There are separate chapters on combating illegal foreign worker employment in France and the US, and a conclusion that emphasizes the need to combat the illegal entry, employment and residence of foreign workers as part of a broader strategy against the underground economy.

Asia. The three-part, 15-chapter publication reviewing migration trends in Asia contains two overview papers, three papers on illegal immigration and integration, and then papers covering recent migration developments in Australia, China, Hong Kong (China), Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Perhaps the major conclusion from the papers is that it is no longer possible to assert that there is an "Asian model" of migration- the differences between Singapore and Japan in migrant numbers and policies are greater than the differences migration policies in Europe or North America.

The Asian migration publication is the fifth in a series that began in 1995, when the Japanese Institute of Labor, the OECD, and the ILO began convening an annual conference to discuss trends in migration in the region.

The introduction provides a valuable summary of the papers, stressing several themes, including: (1) the rapid rise in unemployment in the countries hardest hit by the 1997 crisis (Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand); (2) the general failure of policies aimed at repatriating foreign workers to open up jobs for unemployed workers, even in countries such as Thailand with no system of unemployment insurance; and (3) the rapid recovery of economies and consequent increases in the employment of foreign workers to pre-crisis levels. The combined effect of these developments points to a "structural demand" for foreign workers in most Asian nations, especially in low-wage, low-skill and low-prestige jobs such as plantations and fisheries, construction, and domestic household services.

Labor migration in Asia is marked by relatively high levels of unauthorized or quasi-authorized unskilled foreign workers. Most analyses of labor migration in Asia divide the regions areas into four major groups: (1) Korea and Japan, countries that do not admit unskilled foreign workers; (2) Hong Kong and Singapore, which do admit unskilled foreign workers; (3) Malaysia, Taiwan (not covered in the OECD volume), and Thailand, mostly labor-importing areas; and (4) China, Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam (not covered in the OECD volume), mostly labor exporters.

Korea and Japan, for example, do not admit unskilled foreign workers. Instead, they admit trainees, persons not considered workers and thus not entitled to minimum wages and other labor law protections. While Korea and Japan are relatively successful in minimizing the entry of unauthorized foreigners, they are much less successful at keeping trainees in the jobs to which they are assigned, and preventing them from overstaying their visas, which helps to explain why 60 percent of the foreign workers in Korea, and 40 percent in Japan, are unauthorized.

Hong Kong and Singapore represent the exceptions to most generalizations about labor migration in Asia. These small areas, with labor forces of three and two million, respectively, have 10 and 25 percent foreign workers, 80 to 90 percent of whom are unskilled. Hong Kong and Singapore have tight controls on both employers and foreign workers, and both areas believe they have relatively few unauthorized workers, although apprehensions are up in both areas.

The 1997 financial crisis began in Thailand, and quickly spread to other southeastern nations including Malaysia. Both Malaysia and Thailand attempted to use foreign workers as labor market shock absorbers, expelling illegal workers and refusing to renew work permits for legal workers in order to open up jobs for unemployed local workers. In both countries, these strategies largely failed, primarily because: (1) employers put pressure on their governments not to implement the most draconian enforcement and repatriation policies; (2) local workers did not want to fill foreign workers' jobs, especially in agriculture, construction, and domestic services; and (3) foreign workers did not want to return to their countries of origin, since conditions in Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines were often less promising than working illegally in Malaysia and Thailand.

In Malaysia, for example, the number of registered or legal foreign workers dropped 23 percent between 1996 and 1998, while the estimated number of illegal workers dropped only 10 percent. In January 1998, Malaysia increased the annual levy that employers had to pay to employ a foreign worker legally, and did not allow the renewal of 380,000 work permits held by foreigners employed in construction, manufacturing and services- foreign workers in these sectors whose permits expired were to accept re-deployment to agriculture or return home. In fact, only 115 workers accepted re-deployment, 115,000 left Malaysia, and the others presumably went underground in Malaysia (p11).

Since most Asians migrate under unilateral policies set by receiving countries, the labor-exporting countries had little influence on the decisions of labor importers. Indonesia and the Philippines announced plans to step up efforts to market their workers abroad, and to use remittances more effectively at home to create jobs, but these efforts were overshadowed by the rapid economic recovery and the resumption of labor recruitment in receiving countries.

The publication concludes with four policy recommendations, viz., attempt to curb irregular migration, monitor closely the activities of private recruitment agencies, promote the social integration of migrants abroad, and share information on migration flows and migrant impacts.

Highly Skilled. In June 2001, the OECD convened a seminar on the international mobility of highly skilled workers, in particular human resources in science and technology (HRST) such as scientists, engineers and IT experts. The report of this seminar provides data on the number and characteristics of highly skilled migrants, their impacts on host economies, and an evaluation of policies.

OECD. 2001. International Migration in Asia: Trends and Policies. Paris. OECD. OECD. 2000. Combating the Illegal Employment of Foreign Workers. Paris. OECD. 2001. International Mobility of the Highly Skilled. Proceedings of a June 2001 OECD conference. Paris. OECD.