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US admitted a third of the 5 million temporary workers in 20 OECD countries in 2017

December 20, 2019

The OECD reported that almost five million temporary foreign workers entered 20 OECD countries in 2017, including a third who entered the US. The OECD counts foreigners who have the right to work in the host country, but not the right to settle. However, some temporary migrant workers “earn” settlement rights, as when their employers sponsor them for immigrant visas.

The number of temporary worker migrants arriving in OECD countries matched the number of settler migrants in 2017. The OECD excluded foreign students, working holiday makers (WHMs), and cultural exchange visitors from its temporary worker data, even though these foreigners may work in host country labor markets.

The five countries with the highest shares of temporary foreign workers among all employed migrants are Luxembourg (53 percent of employed migrants are temporary), Korea (46 percent), Japan (24 percent), Switzerland (22 percent), and New Zealand (13 percent). Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have additional foreign students and WHMs who are significant shares of host country workforces.

Temporary foreign worker programs (TFWPs) have many dimensions, but four are most important:

  1. Purpose. Is the purpose of the TFWP to fill vacant jobs, provide opportunities for foreign youth to work and learn, or generate remittances to speed development in migrant countries of origin?
  2. Nature of job and gatekeeper. Is the job being filled by the temporary worker seasonal or year-round, in a sunrise industry such as IT or a sunset industry such as agriculture? Are employers required to seek local workers under government supervision or may they simply attest that they are paying prevailing wages and receive permission to recruit and hire them? Can employers hire students and WHMs who are in the country on the same terms as local workers, that is, without first searching for local workers to fill the job?
  3. Recruitment and employment abroad. Most guest workers are selected by name by their employers; some sending governments maintain lists of work-ready citizens seeking foreign jobs. What are the recruitment, housing, and transportation requirements on employers, and how do they vary by program? For example, the US H-2A program requires employers to pay worker recruitment costs and to provide H-2A workers with free housing and transportation to and from work, while the H-1B program is silent on worker recruitment costs and expects H-1B workers to find their own housing and transportation to work.
  4. Governments, returns, and settlement. Many TFWPs are unilateral in the sense that governments allow employers who want to hire migrant workers to recruit them in any country or in a list of designated countries. Some TFWPs are bilateral in the sense that governments negotiate recruitment procedures, wages and benefits, and conditions of employment abroad, and labor attaches from sending country visit workers at work. Some host governments allow migrant workers to earn an immigrant status after several years employment, sometimes with employer or regional government sponsorship.

The US issued a third of the 5 million new temporary work permits in 2017; Japan was the only non-settlement country that issued a large number of temporary work permits


Source: OECD. 2019. International Migration Outlook 2019

In the US and most major guest worker destinations, less than half of all temporary work permits went to migrant workers


Source: OECD. 2019. International Migration Outlook 2019

A diverse group of “other labor migrants” dominates in most OECD countries except Japan, where trainees dominate


Source: OECD. 2019. International Migration Outlook 2019

A third of temporary worker migrants in OECD countries may stay up to 5 years


Source: OECD. 2019. International Migration Outlook 2019

Temporary worker migrants add 1.3 percent to the US labor force and over 9 percent to the Swiss labor force

Estimated full-year equivalent contribution of temporary migrants, 2017
  EU/EFTA Free movement  
Country Labour migrants Dependents Working holidaymakers International students Labour migrants International students Total full-year equivalent workers   Total added to the resident employed population Share of all employed migrants
Luxembourg 0.8% 0.2%   0.0% 98.7% 0.2% 178,040 65.5% 53.4%
Switzerland 2.2% 0.2%   0.6% 95.7% 1.3% 428,490 9.2% 22.1%
New Zealand 54.7% 10.4% 24.1% 10.7%     92,330 3.6% 12.7%
Korea 97.6% 0.0%   2.3%     632,710 2.4% 45.7%
Israel 100.0%           80,150 2.1% 8.7%
Belgium 11.1% 0.0% 0.1% 1.0% 83.0% 4.8% 96,110 2.1% 11.0%
Chile 100.0%           155,510 1.9% 35.2%
Australia 33.5% 4.7% 35.1% 26.7%     200,350 1.6% 5.2%
Czech Republic 22.5% 0.0% 0.0% 6.7% 65.3% 5.5% 79,560 1.5% 14.6%
Ireland 16.1%   3.5% 6.8% 71.4% 2.2% 31,850 1.5% 6.9%
Canada 55.7% 6.8% 8.5% 28.9%     240,430 1.3% 5.8%
United States 81.3% 9.3% 1.8% 7.6%     1,960,630 1.3% 7.3%
Estonia             7,160 1.1% 11.5%
Germany 4.8%     4.2% 88.7% 2.3% 449,070 1.1% 6.6%
Sweden 32.8% 6.8% 0.5% 7.4% 48.8% 3.6% 41,720 0.8% 4.3%
Japan 83.1% 1.8% 1.0% 14.1%     441,550 0.7% 24.3%
France 19.5% 1.5% 1.2% 17.5% 54.9% 5.5% 122,580 0.5% 3.5%
Greece 27.6%   0.0% 0.9% 71.5% 0.0% 16,180 0.4% 5.0%
Spain 32.7% 2.9%   12.2% 46.1% 6.1% 72,900 0.4% 2.2%
Mexico 90.8% 9.2%         72,820 0.1% 23.7%
OECD Average 45.6% 3.8% 6.9% 9.2% 72.4% 3.2% 5.0% 15.5%
OECD Total 60.4% 4.5% 2.9% 7.8% 83.8% 2.6% 5,400,150 1.2% 9.1%
Source: OECD. 2019. International Migration Outlook 2019